Yet another year is coming to an end and our time seems to be ticking away. Anyone feeling a bit older just by the thought of it? If so, do not despair, at least not if you fancy a bit of meditation. We now have the science about meditation and ageing: Injecting just a few minutes of meditation into our lives improves cognitive abilities – in people 55 to 75 years old!
A range of recent studies suggest that regular meditation practice may counteract some aspects of the cognitive and physical decline that often comes with growing older. However, so far investigating the link between meditation and ageing relied on making snap-shot comparisons between meditators and non-meditators. Because such cross-sectional studies do not follow individuals over time, they remain inconclusive. The results cannot tell us whether meditation practice was the actual reason for the better cognitive and health status of the meditators.
But now the picture is starting to change! A few days ago we published the first of several papers reporting a longitudinal study on mindfulness meditation and ageing. In this study we demonstrate that even a tiny bit of regular meditation practice leads to cognitive improvements in 55 to 75 years old participants, improvements visible in various performance measures and in the brain activity we recorded while participants engaged in cognitive tasks.
10 minutes meditation a day
All our participants were without prior meditation experience. We instructed them to meditate in a very simple way: to focus on the sensation of their breathing – at nostrils, chest or abdomen – and to let all thoughts and feelings pass by without holding on to them or evaluating them. They did so for 10 to 15 minutes a day, five times per week for an 8-week period and were supported by four group meetings sprinkled in between.
Before and after the eight weeks, the participants completed a range of standard computerised tasks that are known to tap specific cognitive functions. In the paper we just published we report the data from one of these tasks, the so-called “emotional counting Stroop task”. This task combines the assessment of cognitive and emotional processes. We wanted to know whether improvements can be found in both areas. As often the case, such tasks are quite simple. By pressing corresponding buttons participants needed to indicate how many words were displayed on a computer screen. The main point here was that the semantics of the words could interfere with the response. And because reading is so highly automatic, it is difficult to supress the influence of the word meaning. Thus, cognitive control processes are required (see an earlier review on these control processes and meditation: Malinowski, 2013). Imagine, the word “TWO” appearing three times on the screen. The word interferes with the correct response (in this case “3”). To elicit emotional interference words could also carry positive (e.g. “LOVE”) or negative (e.g. “PAIN”) meanings or were neutral (e.g. “DOOR”).
Despite this manipulation (and the longish explanations above), we actually did not find category-specific improvements in the meditation group (or the control group). With other words participants did not get better in those aspects of the task that measure the ability to supress irrelevant semantic content that is either interfering on the cognitive (the number words) or the emotional level (the negative emotional words).
However, we did find something else that’s quite convincing: Irrespective of the semantic condition, the meditating participants improved their general response times by approximately 40 milliseconds, whereas no noticeable difference was found in the control group (see Figure above). 40 milliseconds may not sound like a lot, but in terms of fast cognitive response processes this is quite a significant improvement. We also found that a typical brain signal, recorded with EEG, changed, again only in the meditation group. The fronto-central N2 event-related potential increased in amplitude. Our analysis pinpoints this change to the angular gyrus and the superior parietal lobe of the right hemisphere. And we know from other studies that these areas are centrally involved in maintaining goal-directed attention.
Thus, although a bit different to what we expected, the results show that the meditation practice improved the ability to maintain attention on a rather repetitive the task: indicating correctly and rapidly how many words appeared on the screen. They also show that at a mean age of 65 years it is not too late – picking up meditation at that point can lead to rapid cognitive improvements. If we consider that the meditation practice consisted of focusing on the sensation of one’s own breath, the results seem even more remarkable. They demonstrate that the positive effects of meditation practice propagate into areas beyond what is actually trained. This is usually considered to indicate that the practice targets core processes that are involved in many cognitive tasks.
There are good reasons to have confidence in these results, because the study was rigorously controlled. Participants were randomly allocated to the meditation group or the active control group, who followed the same training regime, engaging in arithmetic brain gym exercises. The two groups were matched for whole range of aspects, such as group contact time, daily exercise time, experimenter contact, group allocation, learning new information, participants’ intention and motivation, and exercise environment. Furthermore we recorded several control measures and found that the groups did not differ in terms of age, dispositional mindfulness, computer ability, years in education, health, general processing speed, working memory capacity, self-efficacy, mental well-being, and ongoing/current cognitive and physical activity.