You don't have to be a monk.
Scientific literature is brimming with research showing that transcendental meditation literally changes the structure of the human brain, at least among persons who practice "mindfulness," as it is sometimes called, for many years.
But new research shows that even 20 minutes a day, four days a week, can produce an impressive increase in critical cognitive skills.
"Simply stated, the profound improvements that we found after just four days of meditation training are really surprising," psychologist Fadel Zeidan said in releasing the study. "It goes to show that the mind is, in fact, easily changeable and highly influenced, especially by meditation."
Zeiden led the study while finishing his doctoral studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He is now a researcher at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
If other scientists replicate his work, it means it may not be necessary to lock yourself in a closet for hours at a time to benefit from this Far Eastern therapy.
That said, however, this research does not suggest that more would not be better, and Zeidan cautioned that while a modest effort can produce big results, they are not likely to last long unless you keep it up over an extensive period of time. Like years.
And while there are many books out there explaining "do-it-yourself" techniques, the participants in the North Carolina study were trained professionally, although for a total of only 80 minutes. Those who received the training were as much as 10 times better in their ability to remain focused on a subject while retaining other information.
All 63 participants were students, and only 49 completed the experiment, suggesting this may not be as easy as it sounds. The students were divided into two groups, and all were subjected to a broad range of behavioral tests on mood, memory, visual attention, and vigilance. Then one group listened to a reading of J.R.R. Tolkein's "The Hobbit."
The other group received the meditation training for an equivalent period of time.
The two groups were equal on the behavioral tests at the beginning of the experiment. Both scored about the same on mood testing in the second phase, but the students who received the meditation training scored significantly higher on cognitive tests.
In one test, students were shown an image, called a stimulus, on a computer monitor and told to identify it every time the stimulus appeared. If they got it right, the images would speed up, making it more difficult.
The students who received the meditation training averaged about 10 consecutive correct answers while the group that listened to the reading averaged only about one.
The training itself was pretty basic Buddhist meditation. Participants were told to relax, keep their eyes closed, and focus on the flow of their breath at the tip of their nose. If their thoughts strayed, they were instructed to note the thoughts, and resume concentrating on their breath.
Sounds preposterous, right? Why would something that simple change the brain?
Numerous studies by very serious scientists show at least partly why it works, at least over the long haul.