Saturday, January 5, 2013

Marines Expand Use of Meditation Training

I often talk and write about the benefits of mindfulness meditation. No one that knows me would say that I am a wu-wu new ager. I am all about results. Researchers are using neuroscience to study what happens to people that meditate. The results are real. Meditation helps us be better people by nearly any measure you can imagine.

Doctors used to believe that our brains are fixed and never change after reaching adulthood. This is not true. In one way, our brains are like our muscles. Use it or lose it. Muscles that are not used shrink and become less effective. Muscles that are used grow and become more effective. It's the same with the brain. Meditation has been shown to
• increase the number of neural connections in the part of the brain responsible for concentration and empathy
• decrease the number of neural connections in the amygdala, the area of the brain that controls anxiety and fear
• enlarge the hippocampus, the area of the brain that controls memory

This is proof that we can use meditation to rewire our brains to become happier and more peaceful. We can remember better and make better decisions under stress.

The results have been so positive that the military has taken notice. In a small 2008 study called Mindfulness-based Mental Fitness Training (M-Fit), a small group of marines took part in their normal 8-week, 12-hour a day training as they usually did. In addition, they were taught breathing exercises, how to focus, and how to manage monkey mind. After their training was completed, they were found to have improved mood and attentiveness. The ones that meditated the most had the most benefit.

Tasks that require lots of mental effort, such as elite athletics and combat require lots of working memory capacity. So do emotional challenges, like leaving family behind and heading to a war zone. These types of tasks use up working memory. Over time, that working memory can be restored. Troops who meditated regularly increased their working memory capacity and they were more aware of their bodies response to stress. Before it is restored, depleted working memory leads to poor decision making, impulsive behavior, alcoholism, and domestic violence.

According to an article in Men's Journal, working memory is:
... a term that brain scientists use to define a cognitive resource that is much more than simple recall. Working memory capacity powers complex thoughts. It’s what we call upon to figure out restaurant tips, break down spreadsheets, or even settle ethical dilemmas like whether or not to pull a trigger. The level of this resource can be depleted throughout the day. A morning disagreement with a co-worker — or a roadside bomb for that matter — can make it harder to solve a problem that requires math skills a few hours later in the day. In the battlefield low levels of working memory capacity might mean the difference between life and death.

There is more in the newspaper article here (WashingtonTimes):
© 2013 Eric Borreson

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