Stilling your mind with meditation can slow ageing in the brain, help you cope with stress more easily and make you less susceptible to daydreaming.
Stop ageing from your 20s
‘Losing your marbles’ isn’t just something the elderly need to worry about. Your brain started shrinking in your 20s, and it’s all downhill from there.
As our bodies are living longer and longer, preserving our brains becomes all the more important.
New research that the Australian National University and University of California published earlier this year shows that long-term meditators stay sharper with age.
They compared 50 adults ranging from ages 24 to 77 who had meditated for years, with 50 who were new to meditation. They found the meditators had kept more of their grey matter intact at every age.
It’s impossible to say that meditation was directly responsible for the slower rate of decline in this study. However, it’s encouraging to think we can stay sharp for decades to come by starting to meditate now.
Make it work for you: On average, the people in this study meditated for 45 to 60 minutes at a time. Download an app or mp3 of a guided meditation – then, all you have to do is show up for meditation. Try Calm, Simply Being or Buddhify.
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Increase your grey matter
You don’t have to be a long-term meditator to shape your brain.
In a study from University of Massachusetts Medical School, meditating for eight weeks was enough to change the brains of people who hadn’t meditated before. It increased the concentration of grey matter – the information-processing material of the brain.
Researchers compared the participants’ MRI scans before and after the eight-week course. They saw more grey matter in parts of the brain involved in learning and memory, regulating emotions and taking perspective.
The research involved only 16 meditating participants, which makes it harder to draw firm conclusions. But the design of the study does suggest we can safely put the brain changes down to meditation.
Make it work for you: Participants in the course learned mindfulness techniques, such as body scanning, which they then practised regularly at home. To perform your own “body scan” lie somewhere comfortable and bring your attention to each part of your body in turn. Start with your toes, working your way up to your scalp. Notice how each part is feeling, then allow it to melt.
Stay focused on what counts
Yale researchers have discovered that meditation decreases mind-wandering. When your mind wanders, it interferes with your ability to be focused, productive, and happy.
Most of us experience this wandering “monkey mind” during about 50 per cent of our waking hours.
In the study, researchers found that regularly meditating dials down brain activity in an area called the default-mode network. It’s this network that’s responsible for a “monkey mind”. It’s also involved in anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.
Participants had their brains scanned while meditating. Researchers compared the brain activity of non-meditators with people who had been meditating for 10 years or more.
Before they even started the meditation exercises, the experienced meditators were more focused on the present. Then while they were meditating, the brain scans showed the “monkey mind” network was less active in the experienced meditators than the beginners.
Make it work for you: One of the meditations used in this study was the “loving-kindness” meditation. Begin by taking three deep, slow breaths. First, show loving-kindness towards yourself by saying: “May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease.” Then bring to mind someone you care about, and extend the mantra to them. “May you be happy…” Finally, expand your compassion to all people in the world.