Mind & Body

The Brain Boost You Get From Meditation Could Last for Years

Meditation feels good. It seems to quiet your mind, relax your body, and make the day's obstacles a little easier to handle. But even if it makes a difference to your day, does it really make a difference to your life? Studies into meditation so far have been too short to answer that question, but a massive project from the University of California, Davis is shedding some new light. Its answer? The gains you get from practicing meditation could last at least seven years — but you have to really practice.

Just Focus ... on the Data

Meditation research has been plagued with problems. Meta-analyses of many different studies have found that the studies suffer from small sample sizes; unreliable reporting methods, like asking participants to subjectively rate how they're feeling; and wishy-washy definitions of what meditation even is. The Shamantha Project could jump some of those hurdles, however. The project has been going on for more than a decade and is billed as the most comprehensive study of meditation to date. It's even endorsed by the Dalai Lama.

The project followed 60 experienced meditators as they attended two intensive meditation retreats in Colorado, each three months long and held in 2007. Every day, the participants would join in group meditations twice a day and do their own solo practice six hours a day. All the while, they got specific instruction in "sustained-attention" meditation techniques from Buddhist scholar and teacher B. Alan Wallace, along with complementary methods designed to foster compassion and empathy. (We've written about a few of these techniques right here.) Suffice it to say, it's incredibly intense.

The main goal of the research was to see what effect sustained-attention meditation had on the meditators' ability to, well, sustain their attention. To that end, the team tested their attention with a computer task where they had to stare at a red dot on the screen that was periodically overlapped by a vertical gray line that appeared for less than a blink of an eye. Most of the lines were long, but any time they saw a short one, they had to click the mouse. Retreat participants took this test before, during, and after the retreat, and the researchers did the same tests for people on the retreat waiting list as a control. Then they kept testing to see if the effects held six months later, a year and a half later, and finally seven years later.

For the Long Haul

What did they find? Well, immediately after the study, the meditators were not only better able to sustain their attention, but also showed gains in psychological well-being and in their ability to cope with stress. Not all of the participants made it to the seven-year follow-up, but the 40 who did said that they still meditated regularly in some form or fashion — about an hour a day, on average. After all, they were already willing to meditate almost 24/7 for three months. These people weren't exactly slouches.

When they were tested seven years later, the researchers found that the attention gains they demonstrated directly after the retreat were still there, at least partly. The biggest effects were seen in older people who were more diligent about their meditation practice in the years since, who didn't show as much age-related decline in their attention as those who practiced less. Overall, though, it looks like the biggest gains happened in those first three months, then plateaued from then on. The researchers note that this might mean regular meditation might not be enough to stave off age-related declines, and an intensive retreat like the one in their study might actually be necessary. There's also the fact that people who can afford to escape from life for three months for a meditation retreat probably live at a higher socioeconomic status, which makes it hard to say whether these effects apply to the general population.

Even so, it's heartening to see such a large-scale study tackle meditation. It's a practice with a lot of claims, but not a ton of evidence. The more scientists put it under the microscope, the more we'll know about its benefits.

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Haven't tried meditation yet? Not sure if you want to? You should probably check out "Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics" by New York Times bestselling author Dan Harris. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer May 1, 2018

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