How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist - Andrew B. Newberg, Mark Robert Waldman (2009)
RELIGION AND THE HUMAN BRAIN
2. DO YOU EVEN NEED GOD WHEN YOU PRAY?
Meditation, Memory, and the Aging Brain
In the summer of 2006, I began a new line of research to see if meditation could have a positive effect on patients suffering from memory problems. As you know, the older we get, the more prone we are toward cognitive impairment, so we all have an investment in keeping our brain healthy, happy, and wise. Now, there are lots of things we can do to add extra years to our lives, but after we turn thirty, brain metabolism slowly begins to decline.1 We don't notice this until our later years, but like the engine of an aging car, things begin to break down. Gaskets can leak, the transmission fluid starts to dry out, and the spark plugs begin to misfire. Bit by bit we lose the optimal balance of neuro-plasticity, and this affects our memory, coordination, attention span, information processing, problem solving, and social decision-making skills.2 Unlike a car, we can't overhaul the brain or replace the electrical wiring with new parts. But we can give it a tune-up by “exercising” it in different ways.
Pharmaceutical companies are well aware of our national obsession for staying young, which is why they have invested billions of dollars in search of a chemical fountain of youth. But I was looking for evidence that meditation and prayer could be a better, cheaper, and safer way to go, so you can imagine my delight when I received a grant from the Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation. The medical director, Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa, asked me to investigate how a specific form of meditation might affect the neural functioning of patients who suffered from memory loss.
This was very exciting for me. Our prior research showed how advanced meditators could consciously alter the normal functioning of different parts of the brain, but it did not answer the deeper question: Could meditation change our neural chemistry and circuitry in ways that enhanced our cognitive skills? And if it did, would such changes be temporary or permanent?
For years these questions have been an issue of considerable debate, and now we had an opportunity to find out. To make things more interesting, we'd be working with people who had little or no experience with meditation. We could actually watch what changes took place in the brain over time, and document them.
The practice we investigated is called Kirtan Kriya. The technique has its roots in the sixteenth-century spiritual traditions of northern India, and it became popular in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s.3Specifically, this form of meditation integrates three elements: breathing, sound, and movement. The first element involves the conscious regulation of one's breath, and it is the foundation of many forms of Eastern meditation. Numerous well-documented studies have demonstrated how different forms of yoga and focused breathing can effectively reduce stress, blood pressure, anxiety, and a host of other health-related problems,4 while increasing alertness and cognitive functioning.5 In other recent studies, breathing meditations have been shown to have an effect on the regulation of immunity, aging, and cell death.6
The second element of Kirtan Kriya involves the repetition of the following sounds—sa, ta, na, and ma—which can be done either silently or aloud, and is sometimes incorporated into a melody or song. Known as a mantra, it is similar to the Catholic tradition of repeating a brief prayer for a certain length of time. In Eastern traditions, there are hundreds of different mantras. Many have sacred or symbolic meanings, and others simply involve the repetition of primal sounds. Mantras are often cited in spiritual texts, and they may be assigned to an initiate by a spiritual teacher, but they are all very simple and easy to recall. Mantras and repetitive prayers like the Rosary have been shown to have a distinct, powerful, and synchronous effect on the cardiovascular rhythms of practitioners,7 and we hoped that our brain-scan study would shed additional light on this particular type of meditation.
The third part of the meditation technique involves specific movements of the fingers. In the East, hand, face, and body gestures are called mudras, and in the Kirtan Kriya tradition, you sequentially touch your fingers with your thumb as you pronounce each of the sounds: sa, ta, na, and ma. The technique bears a similarity to the counting of prayer beads, a universal practice that can be found in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
From a spiritual perspective, each mudra or mantra is associated with a theological or metaphysical idea,8 but from a scientific perspective, any form of repetitive movement or sound helps to keep the mind focused.9 This particularly interested me because the neural deterioration of aging often affects muscle coordination and verbalization skills. Thus, the Kirtan Kriya meditation seemed to be an excellent meditation with which to experiment. It was easy to learn and do, and we set up the experiment in a way that eliminated the need for the patient to embrace any specific religious belief. Best of all, our patients would only have to practice for twelve minutes a day. Other meditation studies often focus on rituals that last for much longer periods of time.
MEDITATION FOR CONSTRUCTION WORKERS?
Anyone, I thought, should be able to do this meditation with the minimal amount of instruction, but when Gus walked into my clinic, I suddenly had doubts. In all of our previous studies, our subjects had nurtured spiritual and meditative practices for years. Gus had never meditated, and he wasn't interested in religion. He just wanted his faltering brain to function better.
Gus was a relatively large man, a bit rough around the edges, but very pleasant. He seemed more like a plumber you'd meet on a construction site—you know, someone who was likely to zone out in front of the television with a couple of beers by his side. He didn't seem to be a meditation type of guy. Indeed, when I described the exercise to him, Gus clearly looked unhappy, but after we explained the purpose of the study, his enthusiasm returned.
“When should I do it?” he asked.
“First thing in the morning, just after you get up.” I said.
He thought for a moment, then replied, “The instructions said to ‘sing out’ during the meditation,∗ but I'm usually up around five A.M., getting ready for work. I'm afraid I'll wake up everyone in the building!” Gus, it turns out, was an industrial mechanic.
I knew what he meant because I had tried the mantra a couple of times and felt very self-conscious. After all, it does seem somewhat strange to be loudly chanting, “sa ta na ma” especially if you live in a crowded apartment complex in downtown Philadelphia. I told him that he could do it a little later, or, if he preferred, he could say it quietly.
Still, he seemed concerned. He wanted to do it “right” because he felt that his mental health was at stake, so I reassured him that it would not diminish the success of the practice. He felt satisfied with my response, and we proceeded to give him a series of tests to evaluate his cognitive abilities.
Then I took the first of four brain scans. The first one is called a baseline scan, during which he simply sat quietly for ten minutes listening to an intellectual description of the meditation practice. The images I recorded would serve as a marker, to be compared to later scans that measured the activity in his brain at the end of the eight-week training program.
Next, I described the meditation in detail and played him a video that demonstrated the technique. I asked him to practice it by following along with the person on the video, and then we took the second scan so we could see what was happening in his “untrained” brain during the meditation. We do this by injecting a radioactive tracer through an intravenous tube in his arm during the last few minutes of the meditation. The tracer marks the cerebral blood flow activity by leaving a temporary residue in the brain. Then, when the meditation is complete, we can casually walk down to the room where we take the scans. The cameras would pick up the activity that was deposited during the peak moment of the meditation.
I sent him home with the CD so that he could practice every day, and we called him every two weeks to monitor his progress and answer any questions he might have. Each time we called, he replied that he was doing it faithfully and that everything was going well. Eight weeks later he returned to our lab for further testing and brain scans.
“I really enjoyed it!” he said. “It was great, and I plan to keep doing it.” We got a similar response from our other subjects, who, like Gus, were complaining of memory problems. They too were everyday people who had never done any substantial meditation in their lives. Personally, I was amazed, yet pleased, at their willingness and eagerness to practice regularly. Obviously, they wanted to gain the maximum effect, and they knew we would be tracking them in order to assess the long-term improvements in cognition.
Of course, the big question was: Did it work? Would we find any significant changes in the brain, and would there be any improvement of memory? Our other studies had shown how the brain changes during intense meditation and prayer, but our prior subjects had at least ten years of intense daily practice lasting forty-five minutes or longer. Our memory patients would have only eight weeks of a twelve-minute practice. That's a big difference, and so our study would help identify how long it might actually take to make significant neurological changes. Such information might also help identify the degree of neuro-plasticity that remains when we enter the final decades of life.
We know that if you do cardiovascular exercise, you enhance your physical and emotional health, but there is only a small body of evidence supporting the notion that meditation can enhance your cognitive health. Then there's the problem of complexity. The brain has a hundred billion neurons that connect to others in trillions upon trillions of ways, and no two people have the exact same configuration of connections. As things currently stand in the field of neuroscience, we only have a vague map of a small percentage of the neural circuits that control our emotions, behaviors, and thoughts. Still, the slowly accumulating evidence points to the very real possibility that meditation is an excellent exercise for maintaining a healthy brain.
PROTECTING AND STRENGTHENING YOUR AGING BRAIN
Returning to Gus: Did he alter the normal function of his brain after eight weeks of practice? Yes, he did! I took our second resting scan, and we discovered that there was a significant increase of neural activity in the prefrontal cortex, an area heavily involved in helping an individual maintain a clear, focused attention upon a task. The anterior cingulate was also activated, a structure that is involved with emotional regulation, learning, and memory,10 and is particularly vulnerable to the aging process.11 The anterior cingulate plays a major role in lowering anxiety and irritability, and also enhances social awareness, a feature that tends to deteriorate with age. Throughout this book, we will often return to the importance of this structure in the brain and the ways in which it is stimulated by a variety of meditative practices.
Not only does activation in the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate improve memory and cognition, it also counters the effects of depression, a common symptom in age-related disorders.12 Parkinson's and Alzheimer's patients also show reduced metabolic activity in the anterior cingulate,13 and this suggests to us that the meditation technique should slow down the deterioration caused by these diseases. Personal religious practices and higher levels of spirituality are also associated with slower progression of Alzheimer's disease.14
Scans before and after eight weeks of Kirtan Kriya practice showing increased activity in the anterior cingulate (arrow). The fuzziness is due to the type of technology used and rendering a color scan in black-and-white.
Other meditation studies have shown similar benefits. In 2007, researchers at Emory University found that Zen meditation had “neuro-protective effects and reduced the cognitive decline associated with normal aging.”15 Overall, the evidence clearly demonstrates that most forms of contemplative meditation and yoga will exercise your brain in ways that maintain and promote cognitive health and vitality.
Brief prayer, however, has not yet been shown to have a direct effect upon cognition, and it even appears to increase depression in older individuals who are not religiously affiliated.16 However, when prayer is incorporated into longer forms of intense meditation, or practiced within the context of weekly religious activity, many health benefits have been found, including greater length of life.17 Prayer is also associated with a sense of connection to others,18 but the reason it may have little effect on cognition has to do with the length of time it is performed. Prayer is generally conducted for only a few minutes at a time, and we believe that it is the intense, ongoing focus on a specific object, goal, or idea that stimulates the cognitive circuits in the brain.
Schematic showing the circuit activated by Kirtan Kriya: the prefronta cortex (PFC), anterior cingulate (Cing), basal ganglia (BG), and thalamus (Thal). During meditation, we become more focused and alert (PFC), more empathic and socially aware (Cing), and can better control our body movements and emotions (BG). This affects our sensory perception of the world (Thal), and this information is relayed to other parts of the brain.
Our brain-scan study showed that the meditation Gus performed strengthens a specific circuit—involving the prefrontal and orbital-frontal lobe, the anterior cingulate, basal ganglia, and thalamus—that would otherwise deteriorate with age.19 This circuit governs a wide variety of activities involved with consciousness, clarity of mind, reality formation, error detection, empathy, compassion, emotional balance, and the suppression of anger and fear. When this particular circuit malfunctions or deteriorates, it contributes to the formation of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and schizophrenia. We can keep this circuit healthy, and even improve it, by incorporating meditation into our daily activities and rituals, regardless of our beliefs.
THE AMAZING PLASTICITY OF THE BRAIN
Next, we asked Gus to perform his meditation in our lab. We again injected him with the tracer, as we had eight weeks before, and we took another scan. We wanted to see if his brain responded differently to the meditation than when he first tried it, and we discovered that toward the end of the twelve-minute practice there was decreased activity in the parietal lobe, a part of the cortex involved with constructing our sense of self.
In our brain-scan studies of nuns and Buddhists, we also found decreased activity in the parietal lobe. When this happens, one's sense of self begins to dissolve, allowing the person to feel unified with the object of contemplation or intention. For the nuns, their goal was to come closer to God. For the Buddhists, it was to experience pure consciousness and awareness. But for Gus, he became unified with his goal of improving memory. We don't fully understand the reason for it, but it appears that a loss of self-consciousness enhances one's intention to reach specific goals. A loss of one's sense of self also appears to improve one's ability to perform a variety of tasks, with greater pleasure.20 In sports it's called being “in the zone,” and in psychology, this state of optimal experience is called “flow.”21
Gus's scans showed that it takes less than two months to alter the overall neural functioning of the brain. This is amazing because it demonstrates that we have the power to consciously change our brains, and improve our neural functioning, in far less time than scientists used to think. As noted in Chapter 1, we can see permanent changes in single neurons in a matter of days, and as other studies have shown, most forms of meditation will create subtle but significant changes in a couple of months. Will they be permanent? It's too early to tell concerning cognitive enhancement, but we know from our own studies that advanced meditators who have practiced for years show substantial differences in their brain when compared to nonmeditators. These differences can even be seen when the person is not meditating, but again, we don't know if the brain would return to “normal” if the meditation practice were given up. It's probably similar to exercise: the more the better, but if you stop doing it, the benefits will fade away.
As we mentioned earlier, we found significant increases in the pre-frontal cortex and the anterior cingulate, areas essential for keeping one's attention focused on a task. Other types of meditation and yoga practice stimulate these same areas, but with our memory patients, we also found a significant increase in the cerebellum, which plays an important role in integrating conscious movements of the body. This makes sense since the hand movements of the meditation would necessarily involve the motor coordination areas in the brain.
Gus also showed increased activity in his basal ganglia, lying deep within the center of the brain. The basal ganglia helps control voluntary movements, posture, and motor sequencing, but it also plays an important role in memory formation, behavioral control, and cognitive flexibility.22 Abnormal functioning in this area is associated with normal aging23 and movement disorders24 like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, Tourette's, and Huntington's disease.25 This suggests to us that movement-based meditations, more so than passive meditations, should strengthen the neural functioning of those parts of the brain susceptible to many age-related diseases. However, other forms of meditation, such as Zen, also improve cognition by strengthening different circuits of the brain that normally decline with age.26
TESTING GUS'S COGNITIVE SKILLS
After we took the second set of scans, we readministered our cognitive measurement tests to see if his memory had improved. We were astonished. On one of the tests, he showed almost a 50 percent improvement. Known as the Trails Test,27 it's like an advanced connect-the-dots game. The test has been used for decades to assess a wide range of cognitive functions because it requires visual scanning, visual-motor coordination, and visual-spatial ability. Before the meditation practice, Gus took 107 seconds to complete the task. After following the Kirtan Kriya program, he completed the task in 68 seconds.
Some of our other subjects showed less improvement, but all of them showed enhanced abilities in memory recall, concentration, and verbal fluency. The overall improvement averaged between 10 and 20 percent. This is very impressive, because eight weeks, as we mentioned, is a very short time to measure these kinds of changes. Since we plan to follow our patients over a period of several years, we expect to see continuing improvement in a variety of cognitive skills. However, as other cognitive studies have shown, you need to exercise your brain daily to maintain the benefits achieved.28
MEDITATION WITHOUT GOD
This was our first real evidence that a meditation practice, even when removed from its spiritual and religious framework, can substantially improve memory in people suffering from cognitive problems. This is good news for millions of aging Americans, because it is easy to get into the habit of meditating twelve minutes a day.
Our study also shows that meditation can be separated from its spiritual roots and still remain a valuable tool for cognitive enhancement. Thus, different types of meditation can be introduced into our public school systems to improve our children's academic performance. In a longitudinal study completed in 2007, students showed “decreased test anxiety, nervousness, self-doubt, and concentration loss” simply by using a deep-breathing technique.29 In another study, supported in part by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, researchers at the Medical College of Georgia found that African-American adolescents who were trained in a simple meditation (involving relaxation, breathing, and the repetition of a sound) showed a significant decline in “absenteeism, school rule infractions, and suspension days.”30 Students who took up tai chi (a gentle movement exercise) at Boston Public Middle School reported enhanced personal well-being and social awareness.31 And for a group of young teens who attended a yoga camp, their spatial memory scores improved by 43 percent.32 What parent, when shown this evidence, would not want to teach their children how to meditate, breathe, and relax?
GUS'S LEGACY: THE POWER OF SELECTIVE ATTENTION
Gus symbolizes the brain's remarkable capacity to heal itself and change, especially in the areas that make us uniquely human: our frontal lobes. Here we find the neurological roots of our imagination and creativity, our capacity to reason and communicate with others, and our ability to become more peaceful, compassionate, and motivated.
Our frontal lobe holds the secret for making our dreams come true. That secret can be summarized in two words—selective attention—the ability to voluntarily choose, from millions of pieces of data, which ones seem most relevant to your life. Daily meditation enhances our ability to focus our attention on virtually any goal we wish to achieve, and selective attention improves the memory functions of the brain. Specifically, meditation helps to maintain working memory—the information we need to make any conscious decision—and it does this by discarding irrelevant and distracting data.33 Our study specifically showed changes in those parts of the brain related directly to the structures that are part of the working-memory circuit.34
Spiritual experiences, and the techniques we use to evoke them, involve a complex network of interconnecting neural functions that are equally influenced by our thoughts, feelings, memories, physical conditions, genetic predispositions, and the personal experiences we've had throughout our lives. But the key to meditation—and thus our ability to change our brain—can be reduced to a handful of specific steps. Thus, Gus's memory improved for the following reasons:
1. He wanted to improve.
2. He stayed focused on his intention and goal.
3. He consciously regulated his breathing, posture, and body movements.
4. He practiced the skill over a period of time.
The first step begins with a desire—the conscious wish to change. Once that decision is made, you must train yourself to remain focused on your goal. This takes practice, but our experiments suggest that this happens rapidly. Focused attention begins to build new neuronal circuits that, once established, will automatically activate those parts of the brain that involve motivational activity. And the more that activity is repeated, the stronger those neural circuits become. This mechanism is known as Hebbian learning—often stated as “cells that fire together, wire together”—and it is the primary mechanism by which all living organisms gain new knowledge about the world. Repeating a new task, such as meditation or prayer, changes the synaptic activity at the end of a neuron and will eventually change the structure of the cell.35 Such changes affect the way information is relayed to other parts of the brain.
Desire and focus is enough to permanently alter the brain, but spiritual devotees have discovered additional ways to improve neural functioning. Regulated breathing will affect mechanisms that control emotions and sensory perception, but if you do it too deeply, you can evoke hallucinogenic visions and sounds. Slower regulated breathing has a calming effect on both your body and mind, and it also decreases metabolic activity in different parts of the brain. This is very important because our frontal lobe tends to be overly active. It uses up a lot of energy that is needed to efficiently run other neural mechanisms, and so we need to give this part of the brain a rest. Thinking uses up a lot of neural energy, but slow, deep breathing replenishes it. We'll discuss this in greater depth in later chapters.
The sa-ta-na-ma meditation, like other spiritual practices, allows your brain to rest while maintaining an acute awareness of the environment, which is a very useful skill to develop. By adding repetitious hand movements and speech to your meditation, you further enhance the motor and coordination centers in your brain. Thus, by increasing efficiency throughout the brain, more neural and metabolic energy is conserved. This, in turn, enhances memory formation and retrieval.
Gus wanted to improve his memory, and so he did. But other people, using similar meditation techniques, have achieved other significant goals. Some have created lasting states of tranquility and peace, while others have become more productive at work. When you intensely meditate on a specific goal over an extended period of time, your brain begins to relate to your idea as if it were an actual object in the world by increasing activity in the thalamus, part of the reality-making process of the brain. The concept begins to feel more obtainable and real, and this is the first step in motivating other parts of the brain to take deliberate action in the world.
HAVING FAITH IN REACHING YOUR GOALS
Underlying these four steps—desire, focus, regulated body control, and practice—is a fifth process, one that is essential for obtaining your desire or goal. We call it “expectation,” a term, much like faith, that reflects our neurological propensity to believe that we can, and will, accomplish our goals. Expectation is different from hope because it gives you the inner conviction that your goal is attainable, even if it seems irrational. It is one of the underlying principles of optimism, and it also governs the neurological mechanism known as the “placebo effect.” If you strongly believe in something—in other words, if you have enough faith in yourself—you will stimulate both your immune system and your motivational system into action.36
This is not a magical process, nor something that quantum physics validates, as some self-help books like to claim. Rather, it is simply the brain doing what millions of years of evolution have led it to do: accomplish goals that we set our minds to. The same is true for religious pursuits. If you set your mind on reaching a spiritual goal, you'll neurologically enhance your sense that a spiritual reality can be experienced. One can argue that Abraham, Moses, Mohammed, Jesus, and the Buddha all reached spiritual enlightenment because they devoted years to intense meditation and prayer. And we believe that cognitively impaired patients like Gus can similarly reach their goals of memory enhancement through the practice of daily meditation.
PROTECTING THE AGING BRAIN
The evidence clearly shows that most forms of contemplative practice will improve cognition, but how do you decide which technique to use? More to the point: Is the meditation that Gus used better than other spiritual practices? It will take a long time before we have a definitive answer, but we do have several working hypotheses supported by the years of research that we and others have done.
We believe that this meditation is more likely to show improvement in memory and cognition because it incorporates six different neural-altering techniques: relaxation, breathing, chanting (mantra/ word/sound repetition), coordinated finger movements, background music, and intense concentration. Many other meditations only use one or two of these methods. We'll talk more about the benefits of relaxation, breathing, and concentration in Chapter 9, but for now we'll take a few moments to review the effects that repetitive movements, sounds, and music have on the brain.
Numerous studies have shown that the mere repetition of a sound, phrase, or finger movement over a period of time significantly reduces symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, and anger, while improving the practitioner's perception of quality-of-life and spiritual well-being.37 In fact, the addition of movement to any meditation should significantly enhance the cognitive performance of the brain.38 Repeated, skilled finger movements also appear to improve the central and peripheral nervous systems, offsetting the age-related loss of hand control.39 In one study, musicians who used repeated finger movements had lower rates of dementia,40 and in another, early musical training with children resulted in the “long-term enhancement of visual-spatial, verbal, and mathematical performance.”41 In fact, it is fair to consider any musical training a form of cognitive meditation because it involves intense concentration, repetition of instructional techniques, body coordination, and motivational attention.
There is even considerable evidence documenting the effects of pleasant music on the brain. It deepens emotional experience,42 enhances visual and auditory processing,43 and improves attention and the processing of emotions.44 Thus, we recommend that you play some classical or melodic music in the background when you meditate or pray. And if you “sing” your mantra or prayer, as is done in the Kirtan Kriya tradition, you'll increase your cognitive performance.45
We also want to point out that there is considerable interplay between the brain mechanisms that regulate anxiety, stress, and memory.46 For example, high levels of stress lead to memory decline and increase the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.47 Again, most of the meditations discussed in this book will trigger the body's relaxation response and thereby lower stress. And as most people know, stress is the number one killer in America because it damages nearly every organ in the body—especially your brain.
EXERCISING YOUR DENDRITES
Our current understanding of the human brain shows that subtle deterioration in any part of a neuron—in its coating, synapses, or the way it responds to neurochemicals—will impede cognitive function.48 But the real key to understanding cognitive enhancement and deterioration may lie in the microscopic dendrites that are on the receiving ends of neurons. In fact, they may even harbor the secret to why humans—and only humans—contemplate the nature of God.
A single neuron can have as many as ten thousand little tentaclelike branches that reach out toward the signaling ends of other neurons. Picture, if you will, the roots of a giant tree: These are the dendrites, collecting information and sending it up into the body of the neuron (the tree trunk), which then decides what other dendrites to stimulate through the axon terminals (the leaves) that grow out of the ends of one of the neuron's “branches.”
Mild, short-term, or chronic stress impairs memory by disrupting dendritic activity.49 Researchers working with rats (whose brain functions are remarkably similar to humans) found that it took only one week of mild stress to cause significant alterations in dendrite organization and growth.50 If the situation that is causing the stress is removed, function is restored.51 But not completely, for nearly one-third of the damaged dendrites were permanently lost if the stress was later repeated.52
Dendrite loss in the prefrontal cortex has also been found in aging humans.53 For example, we have known for decades that Alzheimer's patients suffer this kind of loss.54 However, increased neural activity, which occurs in the prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain when we meditate, tempers the effects of the loss.56 This is why we believe that meditation will help maintain dendrite function: It lowers the overall levels of stress while simultaneously stimulating cognitive alertness. In fact, evidence now suggests that the more you exercise your brain, the more you can slow dendrite deterioration, and thus preserve your memory and cognitive skills.
In this simplified drawing, dendrites receive signals from other neurons and pass the information to the axon terminals, which will release neurotransmitter signals to other neurons.55
DESIGNING A PERSONAL
For years, scientists have known that simple memory exercises—for example, playing mahjong or memorizing random lists of numbers or names—can enhance a variety of cognitive functions, especially for people who are older than fifty.57 But as we will explain throughout this book, meditation appears to be more effective when it comes to strengthening the neural circuits in your brain.
In essence, the more you exercise your brain—mentally, physically, socially, and contemplatively—the healthier it becomes. Even more interesting, as researchers at the Stockholm Gerontology Research Center and the Aging Research Center in Sweden discovered, if you custom design your own memory-enhancing program, you'll show even greater improvement, along with an increased willingness to practice.58 So why not apply this strategy and create a personalized memory-enhancement meditation? The key elements are simple: Maintain a state of relaxed awareness, regulate your breathing, and perform a simple or complex movement with any part of your body. As you do this, sing, chant, or silently repeat a sound or phrase that has personal meaning, and practice for at least twelve minutes each day. And don't forget the most important step: Be clear about the goal you wish to reach.
Make the meditation as simple or as complex as you like, and feel free to vary it from week to week. However, the more complex your meditation becomes, and the longer you do it, the more you will strengthen the neural circuits that tend to deteriorate with age. You can even meditate while you're walking, jogging, or doing calisthenics, for the more parts of your body you move, the more parts of your brain will be stimulated.
How long will it take to make an improvement? Technically speaking, overnight, but if you want to see measurable improvements, you have to practice daily. As one recent study demonstrated, just fourteen days of daily mental and physical exercise, stress reduction, and a healthy diet, was enough to improve cognition and brain function for people between the ages of thirty-five and sixty-nine.59
Other meditation studies infer that the greatest improvements are achieved when you practice thirty minutes to an hour each day. Simply put, the longer you practice, the greater the reward. After a few weeks you should notice improvement in your attitude and emotional well-being, and if you integrate meditation with psychotherapy or cognitive-behavioral classes, you will find that you can maintain low degrees of depression and anxiety long after your therapy ends—but again, only if you continue the meditation practice of staying relaxed, alert, and focused.60
TAKE A COFFEE, TEA, AND COGNITION BREAK
Meditation is great for your brain, but when it comes to needing an instant boost of cognitive powers, it is hard to beat a couple of freshly brewed cups of java.61 Coffee may even lower your risk of diabetes, gout, Parkinson's disease, and certain types of cancer.62
When the U.S. Army Research Institute investigated the effects of coffee on Navy SEAL trainees, they concluded that “even in the most adverse circumstances, moderate doses of caffeine can improve cognitive function, including vigilance, learning, memory, and mood state.”63 In fact, they found that for people exposed to severe stress, coffee provided a significant advantage when cognitive performance was critical. They found that the optimal dose was two cups of coffee (200 mg of caffeine).
Caffeine may even lengthen your life,64 but there are studies showing that more than two cups may have a variety of side effects. It may cause migraines for chronic users,65 and it appears to weaken bone structure due to the fact that caffeine leaches calcium from your body66 Caffeine tablets can also be toxic, and although rare, a caffeine overdose can kill you.67
For those who don't like coffee, green and black tea will also improve your cognition and mental health.68 It has most of the physiological benefits associated with coffee, plus the added benefit of lowering blood pressure.69 It also has another ingredient, theanine, that enhances neural cognition.70
Finally, don't forget about water. Drink plenty of it, especially if you are exercising, because dehydration appears to impair cognition, motor coordination, and mood.71 However, other evidence suggests that any changes—positive or negative—caused by moderate water deprivation are minor.72
Before we close this chapter, I want to bring up an important but often overlooked point. What you choose to meditate upon, or pray for, can do more than change your brain. You can damage it, especially if you choose to focus on something that makes you frightened or angry. In psychology this is called “rumination,” and it is clearly hazardous to your health.73 In a Stanford brain-scan study, people who focused on negative aspects of themselves, or on a negative interpretation of life, had increased activity in their amygdala. This generated waves of fear, releasing a torrent of destructive neurochemicals into the brain.
Fortunately, meditation is the opposite of rumination and, in some ways, is similar to the psychoanalytic model of free association created by Freud. In meditation, as in therapy, we learn to watch our negativity and not react to it. In the process, we train the brain to remain calm, even in the face of adversity. Thus, meditation becomes an exemplary way to reevaluate life's difficulties and mysteries. But perhaps most important, it trains the mind to become less attached to its own desires, attachments, and beliefs. When this happens, the way we see ourselves and the world will change.
∗ The term “Kirtan” refers to a North Indian style of devotional singing, and so the mantra is spoken lyrically, not chanted. You can read more about Kirtan Kriya and listen to the version we used in our study at www.alzheimersprevention.org.