In a previous post, I explained how meditation practice is associated with increased cortical thickness. As interesting as that is, it does leave a couple of questions open:
- These were experienced meditators (7 years practice on average). What about beginners? How long does it take to make a difference?
- OK, so the brain changes. Good, great, but what does this equate to? What difference does it make in what the brain can do?
This is where Zeidan et al come in. A group of people with no prior experience in meditation were split into two groups. One would get four sessions of mindfulness training, the other would get four sets of listening to The Hobbit on audiobook.
What happened? Well, in terms of self-reported mood, both groups showed improvements – reduced negative moods, reduced symptoms of depression, reduced anxiety when comparing before and after measurements. However, there were no differences between groups. So, either mindfulness training and The Hobbit are equally effective in this regard, or some other factor was effecting both groups equally (participants were all students, so that’s not too implausible).
This is similar to another study, which compared mindfulness to relaxation and found no difference between them in terms of their effect on mood. Also echoing that study, Zeidan and colleagues report that the mindfulness group had the upper hand in things other than mood – this time it was performance on the following cognitive tasks:
- The Digit Modalities Test – A test of visual tracking and working memory
- Verbal fluency – A word association test asking people to think of as many words beginning with F, A, and S, or, C, F and L within one minute.
- The n-back test – A test of processing speed, working memory and attention.
So although there were no mood benefits over the control group, meditating for four days, for just 20 minutes per day, can increase cognitive function in these areas! So get your tush on the cush, as Jon Kabat-Zinn would say.