Do you have trouble concentrating on the task at hand? Be honest, how many new tabs have you opened between clicking on this blog and actually reading it. Personally, I opened two new tabs on my browser and started an e-mail just between writing the first and second sentence of this blog! With the constant buzzing of our smartphones and infinite distractions of the Internet, who can focus on just one thing? Well, by practicing mindfulness and meditation, neuroscientists are finding we may be able to do just that.
On Wednesday night I attended “Mindfulness in the Workplace,” a conversation between writer David Gelles and neuroscientist Christopher Moore, Ph.D., as part of the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave: The Attachment Trap series. David Gelles is a reporter for the New York Times and author of the recent book Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business from the Inside Out. Christopher Moore is a professor and researcher in the neuroscience department at Brown University. Moore’s Lab at Brown examines neocortical dynamics—the changes in brain activity that happen every millisecond—and how these affect human perception. Gelles and Moore were an engaging duo. Gelles shared success stories from meditation and mindfulness programs in corporations like Aetna and Eileen Fischer, and Moore gave the audience insight into the changes in the brain caused by meditation.
Gelles described how people often feel happier, less stressed, more compassionate, more conscientious, and most importantly healthier after meditating. When the insurance company, Aetna, implemented a meditation program, the company’s employee healthcare cost went down 7.2% (an extraordinary $9 million in savings), he said. One of the most interesting effects of meditation is an improved ability to concentrate on a single task. Gelles described one study where two groups, one control and one trained in meditation, were given basic office tasks such as data entry, updating contact lists, sending e-mails (writing blogs!), etc. The group trained in meditation was far better at completing the assigned task before switching to the next.
So what does neuroscience say about this? It’s all about the Alpha waves. Alpha waves are neural oscillations that are strongest when our eyes are closed. An earlier study of Zen masters found an especially high level of alpha waves measured during meditation. According to Moore, the researchers assumed meditation simply allowed the brain to idle, and little significance was attributed to the practice. However, as Moore explained, “a big part of paying attention is not paying attention to other things.” Moore said that when examining the brain of a person in a meditative state, alpha waves are actually only observable in exaggerated numbers in the parts of your brain where you are not trying to focus. This ties in nicely with Gelles experiential description of meditation. While meditating, Gelles said he “discovers sensations and internal feelings within his body,” by focusing specifically on those areas.
Moore also described another interesting study by a colleague and host of an earlier Brainwave talk, Sara Lazar, who found that eight weeks of meditation training led to an increase in grey matter in the brain. There’s a nice TedTalk where she describes her research.
Gelles and Moore cautioned the audience that meditation is not a panacea for productivity or happiness, but I was sold and plan on signing up for meditation classes immediately. For more information on mindfulness, meditation, and neuroscience, read the Dana article, “Teasing Out the Benefits of Meditation”, or watch Marcus Penn, M.D., define mindfulness at a Staying Sharp session in Oakland.
The Rubin Museum is a Brain Awareness Week partner and has a number of great events left in its Brainwave 2015 series. Stay tuned for our coverage of “An Actor’s Dream” next week, with actor Jake Gyllenhaal and neuroscientist Moran Cerf.