Many people see meditation as exotic daydreaming. My advice to them is, try it. It's difficult, at least to begin with. On my first attempt, insted of concentrating on my breathing and letting go of anything that came to mind as intructed by my cheery Tibetan teacher, I got distracted by a string of troubled thoughts and them fell asleep. Apparently this is normal for first-timers. Experienced meditators will assure you it is worth persisting. Training allows us to transform the mind, to overcome destructive emotions and to dispel suffering", says Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard. The mumerous methods Buddhism has developed over the centuries can be used by anyone. what is needed is enthusiasm and perseverance". It all sounds very rewarding, but what does science have to say on the subject?
In the past decade, researchers have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fmri)
to look at the brains of experienced meditators, such as Ricard, as well as beginners. A scientific picture of meditation now suggests that meditation can change aspects of your psychology, temperament and physical health in dramatic ways. The studies are even starting to throw light on how meditation works."Investigating the nature of your mind is bound to be helpful". says Clifford Saron, research leader of the most Shamatha project, one of the most comprehensive scientific studies of meditation ever at the centre for Mind and Brain. University of California, Davis, Usa. And you don't need a Buddhist or spiritualist world view to profit from meditation.
In 2007, saron and a team of neuroscientists and psychologists followed 60 experienced meditators during a three-months retreat in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, watching for changes in their mental abilities, psychological health and physiology. The participants used a method known as focused attention meditation, which involves directing attention on the tactile sensation of breathing. Haeded by Katherine Macleam at Johns Hopkins University school of Medicine in the US, the study measured attention skills. The volunteers looked at a succession of vertical lines flashed up on a computer screen. They then had to indicate by clicking a mouse, whenever there was a line shorter than the rest. As the retreat progresses, the volunteers became more accurate and focused on the task for longer periods. Other researchers have also linked meditation with improved attention. Last year a team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison reported that after three months of training in focused attention meditation, volunteers were quicker at picking out different tones among a successsion of similar ones, implying their powers of concentration had improved. But how does dwelling on your breath for a period each day lead to cognitive change?
One possibility is that it invoolves strengthening our working memory, and the capacity to hold information needed for short-term reasoning and comprehension. Maclean points out that meditation is partly about observing how our ensory experiences change from moment to moment, which requires us to hold information about decaying sensory treaces in working memory.
Meditation training is also believed to enhance thinking abilities used in all basic perception tasks, "says Maclean. Once perception becomes easier, the brain can direct more of its limited resources to concentration.