Reflecting on my time spent with regular meditators and participants in meditation experiments I noted several differences between the groups. Participants in scientific studies are generally university students so they tend to be younger, healthier and better educated than the average spiritual practitioner. But alongside trendier clothes and even trendier phones the strongest impression of what separates the meditators from the participants is happiness. Generalisations are not necessarily the most reliable way of understanding cause and effect, I have known grumpy meditators, miserable Buddhists and extremely happy university students. However most of my experience as a meditator has been spent with people who enjoyed living.
“If you need more happiness in your life you should think about meditating, if you meditate or practice mindfulness and don’t feel any happier you should review your practice.”
Let’s be clear, the link between meditation and happiness isn’t a new idea, we have known for a long time that meditation and mindfulness can reduce self reported levels of depression and anxiety. It should also be pointed out that most meditation experiments are short term projects, whereas regular meditators may have decades of daily practice behind them. But when you think about it, any meditation method used by Buddhists or inspired by Buddhist teachings (such as mindfulness) has one primary goal, to reduce suffering and therefore increase happiness. Meditation isn’t magic, it can’t pay your mortgage, make your boss a nicer person or stop your neighbours playing loud music in the night. But by developing a greater sense of social inclusion and happiness, it seems that meditators tend to create and experience less friction in their day to day lives. They can often diffuse negative situations and naturally gravitate towards productive, beneficial engagement. I’m not talking about the initial sense of euphoria that often grips new meditators in the first few weeks of practice, rather the deep seated sense of joy and contentment that often comes with long term meditation.
There’s a lot to be said for happiness ‘for it’s own sake’, going to a meditation class with the expectation of having all concerns lifted off my shoulders is something I’ve enjoyed for decades. Over time the feeling of happiness experienced in meditation seeps into everyday life and eventually becomes a semi-permanent state of mind. Alongside the cognitive impact of meditation methods that are of interest to psychologists, the meditator’s sense of joy plays out, often unnoticed. But I wonder to what extent can we attribute the health benefits of meditation to simple everyday happiness as well as the more narrow functional changes that meditation and mindfulness create in the brain?
Several features in the media this week have giving some clear indications about the science behind keeping our brains in the best possible shape. Some of the advice falls into the generic wellbeing wisdom which now seems to be be associated with most health messages;
eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, consume less processed meat
take regular exercise
give up smoking
stay socially engaged
avoid stress, relax and sleep the right amount
keep the brain working with appropriate activity and brain training
The last item on this wish list is unsettlingly vague given that it probably has the most significant impact on brain health. For example how can we define brain training (as almost everything we do can train the brain)? What is an appropriate level of activity and which parts of the brain should we focus on?
“In one study the brains of regular meditators were found to be years younger than non meditators”
In today’s Guardian, attention was drawn to a key finding of the MacArthur Studies of Successful Aging; that typically lifestyle and environment are more influential in our quality and length of life than genetic factors. This is also the general direction that brain science seems to be moving in with regards neurodegeneration. That although there are many questions left to be answered, limiting cognitive decline and reducing the risk of dementia may rest largely in our own hands.
Returning to the question of brain training, the big issue is to establish what kinds of intervention bring the greatest overall benefit? It is becoming increasingly apparent that narrow single task training such as Sudoku or word searches have a limited effect. Whereas maintaining high levels of brain activity and cognitive challenge are likely to keep a much broader area of the cortex young and healthy. The same principle needs to be applied if meditation systems are being used to maintain cognitive function. That the meditation or mindfulness method should be broad based and able to tap into both the intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (task or external) networks. Activity in and between different neural networks is a key element in brain health and one frequently overlooked and poorly understood. To illustrate consider tonglen meditation, it combines compassion, nondual awareness and mindfulness, it allows the meditator to work with our internal visualisation and empathy systems. In addition it engages the important connectivity between introspection and external awareness.
Given what we know already about neurodegeneration, it seems likely that long term protection against cognitive impairment can be found in meditation methods built on nondual compassionate approaches.
No simple answers to dementia prevention but some clear signposts are starting to emerge.
How to protect your brain from dementia
This is not a simple question and there isn’t just one answer. Dementia is a term used to describe symptoms from a number of different illnesses, so different forms of dementia may require alternative approaches. However an article about how Jessica Langbaum keeps her brain young makes some points that we all can learn from. Jessica is the Associate Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative at the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix, so she knows a thing or two about reducing the risk of developing dementia.
There is an enduring belief that activities such as Sudoku or app based brain training can offer some benefit is the battle against neurodegeneration. But Dr Langbaum makes the point that any exercise as narrow in scope as single task brain training is probably too limited to be of significant benefit. So that while Soduko for example, might help to keep the parts of the brain linked to simple calculations in good working order, this may offer little protection against Alzheimer’s dementia. The presumption is that maintaining large areas of brain function at high levels of performance is likely to keep overall brain health for longer. This idea is often described at the use it or lose it hypothesis, that once we start to scale down the demands on our brain we may unwittingly increase the risks of permanently losing function and structure.
“regular meditators have been observed to have both younger brains and thicker cortex than non-meditators”
The use it or lose it approach isn’t an ultimate answer but it does give us some great signposts about how to maintain brain health. I have often considered that continued use of meditation into middle and old age by Buddhists may be directly linked to the anecdotal evidence suggesting lower rates of dementia in certain groups of meditators. Many long term Buddhists increase their meditation practice in retirement and can frequently be found working for a range of good causes in voluntary and paid capacities, even at advanced ages. There is research that suggests spiritual practice per se might have a preservative effect on cognitive function but I think we must also consider the more direct influence of meditation methods on the regular renewal of brain function and structure.
Many well established Buddhist meditation practices such as tonglen have been designed as mind training systems. Their original goal was almost certainly not to reduce the risks of dementia, but they have long been associated with increasing wisdom, clarity and compassion. From the neuroscience point of view this means the methods are linked to activity in several of the most important brain networks, such as those connected to empathy, memory, attention, visualization and planning. This is specifically why Brain Renewal Meditation (BRM) has been developed with reference to reliable traditional methods and is also supported with research from neuroimaging and cognitive psychology.
The best advice we can offer to reduce your risks of developing dementia is to,
start early, cognitive decline begins in our late 20s
keep your brain as active as possible for as long as possible
stay socially engaged
stay physically active
watch your diet
try forms of brain training able to keep a range of brain structures firing
Photo of girl on swing by Artem Bali on Pexels.com, photo of Buddha statue by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels.com
Meditation for seniors. Meditation supports a healthy brain at any age.
Meditation for seniors; boost your own brain
Brain Renewal Meditation (BRM) is a simple system developed by meditation expert and trained neuroscientist Stephen Gene Morris. It offers methods designed to improve brain health and slow down the rate of cognitive (brain) decline. Aspects of our brain function such as memory and attention begin to deteriorate in our late 20s, however most of us don’t start to notice any changes until we reach our 40s. The point of BRM is that there are a number of things we can do to slow or perhaps even reverse aspects of cognitive decline at any point in our lives, even at 60, 70 or 80. If you have the capacity to concentrate there is a good chance that you can make a positive impact on your brain’s function and structure.
Meditation is probably the single most useful thing a person can do to help maintain brain health. There are hundreds of scientific studies that show an effect on cognitive performance linked to regular meditation. A key point to make is that different forms of meditation lead to different effects. BRM draws together elements of compassion, nondual and mindfulness meditation into one integrated practice. It is a secular practice which requires no previous experience of meditation, it can be undertaken sitting in any chair that allows you to keep your back straight. It can be practiced in a traditional meditation class or through online training in your own home.
Almost all of the evidence from neuroscience, psychology and traditional meditation systems points to our ability to improve our own brain function throughout our lives. For example a major strategic review of research into strategy-based cognitive training in older adults, strongly indicated than brain function can be enhanced even in middle and old age. The crucial point is that no mater what your age your brain remains plastic and can adapt to the demands of brain training in many forms, particularly meditation.
Follow this link for more information about BRM and how you can join a class.
The key to successful meditation. You! Your motivation is key to Brain Renewal Training.
Taking control of your brain
There is no cliche’ or slogan I can use that will persuade you to take better care of your brain, it’s all about you. This website can simply explain what is known on the subject and share appropriate brain training meditation methods. For meditation to be effective the desire to achieve optimum brain health must be developed and nurtured in each of us.
There is no compulsion implied, I write about and teach Brain Renewal meditation (BRM) only for people that want the benefits of a younger, healthier brain. Many people are happy to allow nature to take its course and allow their genes to decide the way their brain ages, that is a legitimate and common choice. Problem is it’s not that simple, the way we live, how we think, where we go and what we do will all influence our brain’s structure and function. Our genes are only one factor in brain aging, the evidence indicates that making small but important changes in our daily life will greatly benefit long term brain health.
It is this ability to choose one path over another that rests at the heart of brain health. Our brain is designed to help us, its sole function is to follow our commands. This may sound self evident but it is an idea which is often absent from much of contemporary scientific thinking. In psychology for example, meditation research rarely pays sufficient attention to the motivation of meditators, preferring to allow the method of meditation to be the dominant object of research. It’s a great challenge for psychology because meditation is ultimately about what you do with your mind, not how you sit, what you say and the expression on your face. And so with BRM the first question you should ask yourself is, do you want to maintain optimum cognitive function? Only then should the methods gain any real importance.
There is an enduring paradigm in cognitive psychology, that cognitive decline is age related. That there is a ‘natural’ reduction in brain structure and function from the late 20s onward. This seems kind of intuitive at first sight, older people do appear to suffer from ongoing cognitive decline, just look at our parents and grandparents. However this view is contradicted by the research, certain lifestyle choices are consistently linked to cognitive decline and attenuation in brain structure. At best our chronological age is one of several factors correlated with how our brain will be working in middle and old age.
How can we explain those individuals that appear to enjoy near peak cognitive performance into their 70s, 80s and 90s? Sir Jonathan Miller (originally a neurology specialist) is just one of many examples.
After many years of study and practice the first question I ask new meditation students is “why to do want to meditate?”. Most of the benefit you are likely to get from meditation will be linked to this question, meditation isn’t primarily about me or the science, it’s about you!