Meditation and Health in the Media
How to Get Smarter, One Breath at a Time
Scientists find that meditation not only reduces stress but also reshapes the brain
At 4:30, when most of Wall Street is winding down, Walter Zimmermann begins a high-stakes, high-wire act conducted live before a paying audience. About 200 institutional investors — including airlines and oil companies — shell out up to $3,000 a month to catch his daily webcast on the volatile energy markets, a performance that can move hundreds of millions of dollars. "I'm not paid to be wrong — I can tell you that," Zimmermann says. But as he clicks through dozens of screens and graphics on three computers, he's the picture of focused calm. Zimmermann, 54, watched most of his peers in energy futures burn out long ago. He attributes his brain's enduring sharpness not to an intravenous espresso drip but to 40 minutes of meditation each morning and evening. The practice, he says, helps him maintain the clarity he needs for quick, insightful analysis — even approaching happy hour. "Meditation," he says, "is my secret weapon."
Everyone around the water cooler knows that meditation reduces stress. But with the aid of advanced brainscanning technology, researchers are beginning to show that meditation directly affects the function and structure of the brain, changing it in ways that appear to increase attention span, sharpen focus and improve memory.
One recent study found evidence that the daily practice of meditation thickened the parts of the brain's cerebral cortex responsible for decision making, attention and memory. Sara Lazar, a research scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital, presented preliminary results last November that showed that the gray matter of 20 men and women who meditated for just 40 minutes a day was thicker than that of people who did not. Unlike in previous studies focusing on Buddhist monks, the subjects were Boston-area workers practicing a Western-style of meditation called mindfulness or insight meditation. "We showed for the first time that you don't have to do it all day for similar results," says Lazar. What's more, her research suggests that meditation may slow the natural thinning of that section of the cortex that occurs with age.
The forms of meditation Lazar and other scientists are studying involve focusing on an image or sound or on one's breathing. Though deceptively simple, the practice seems to exercise the parts of the brain that help us pay attention. "Attention is the key to learning, and meditation helps you voluntarily regulate it," says Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin. Since 1992, he has collaborated with the Dalai Lama to study the brains of Tibetan monks, whom he calls "the Olympic athletes of meditation." Using caps with electrical sensors placed on the monks' heads, Davidson has picked up unusually powerful gamma waves that are better synchronized in the Tibetans than they are in novice meditators. Studies have linked this gamma-wave synchrony to increased awareness.
Many people who meditate claim the practice restores their energy, allowing them to perform better at tasks that require attention and concentration. If so, wouldn't a midday nap work just as well? No, says Bruce O'Hara, associate professor of biology at the University of Kentucky. In a study to be published this year, he had college students either meditate, sleep or watch TV. Then he tested them for what psychologists call psychomotor vigilance, asking them to hit a button when a light flashed on a screen. Those who had been taught to meditate performed 10% better — "a huge jump, statistically speaking," says O'Hara. Those who snoozed did significantly worse. "What it means," O'Hara theorizes, "is that meditation may restore synapses, much like sleep but without the initial grogginess."
Not surprisingly, given those results, a growing number of corporations — including Deutsche Bank, Google and Hughes Aircraft — offer meditation classes to their workers. Jeffrey Abramson, CEO of Tower Co., a Washington-based development firm, says 75% of his staff attend free classes in transcendental meditation. Making employees sharper is only one benefit; studies say meditation also improves productivity, in large part by preventing stress-related illness and reducing absenteeism.
Another benefit for employers: meditation seems to help regulate emotions, which in turn helps people get along. "One of the most important domains meditation acts upon is emotional intelligence — a set of skills far more consequential for life success than cognitive intelligence," says Davidson. So, for a New Year's resolution that can pay big dividends at home and at the office, try this: just breathe.
Sleeping Your Way to the Top
Staying up late to get ahead? It might be more productive to get a good night's rest
Americans are not renowned for their powers of self-deprivation; doing without is not something we do particularly well. But experts say there is one necessity of life most of us consistently fail to get: a good night's sleep.
The recommended daily requirements should sound familiar: eight hours of sleep a night for adults and at least an hour more for adolescents. Yet 71% of American adults and 85% of teens do not get the suggested amount, to the detriment of body and mind. "Sleep is sort of like food," says Robert Stickgold, a cognitive neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School. But, he adds, there's one difference: "You can be quite starved and still alive, and I think we appreciate how horrible that must be. But many of us live on the edge of sleep starvation and just accept it."
Part of the problem is we are so used to being chronically sleep deprived - and have become so adept at coping with that condition - that we no longer notice how exhausted we really are. In 2003, sleep expert David Dinges and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine tested the effects of restricting slumber to eight, six or four hours a night for two weeks. During the first few days, subjects sleeping less than eight hours admitted to being fatigued and lacking alertness. But by Day 4, most people had adapted to their new baseline drowsiness and reported feeling fine - even as their cognitive performance continued to plummet.
Over time, the experiment's sleep-restricted subjects became so impaired that they had difficulty concentrating on simple tasks, like pushing a button in response to a light. "The human brain is only capable of about 16 hours of wakefulness [a day]," says Dinges. "When you get beyond that, it can't function as efficiently, as accurately or as well."
In the real world, people overcome their somnolence - at least temporarily - by drinking coffee or taking a walk around the block. But then they find themselves nodding off in meetings or, worse, behind the wheel. These short snatches of unconsciousness are what researchers call microsleep, a sign of sleep deprivation. "If people are falling asleep because 'the room was hot' or 'the meeting was boring,' that's not coping with sleep loss. I would argue that they're eroding their productive capability." says Dinges.
What most people don't realise is that the purpose of sleep may be more to rest the mind than to rest the body. Indeed, most of the benefits of eight hours' sleep seem to accrue to the brain: sleep helps consolidate memory, improve judgement, promote learning and concentration, boost mood, speed reaction time and sharpen problem solving and accuracy. According to Sonia Ancoli-Israel, a psychologist at the University of California in San Diego who has done extensive studies in the aging population, lack of sleep may even mimic the symptoms of dementia. In recent preliminary findings, she was able to improve cognitive function in patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer's simply by treating their underlying sleep disorder. "The need for sleep does not change a lot with age," says Ancoli-Israel, but often because of disruptive illnesses and medications used to treat them, "the ability to sleep does."
If you're one of the otherwise healthy yet perpetually underrested, there's plenty you can do to pay back your sleep debt. For starters, catch up on lost time. Take your mother's advice, and get to bed early. Turn off the TV half an hour sooner than usual. If you can't manage to snooze longer at night, try to squeeze in a midday nap. The best time for a siesta is between noon and 3pm, for about 30 to 60 minutes, according to Timothy Roehrs, director of research at the Sleep Disorders and Research Center in Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. He advises against oversleeping on weekend mornings to make up for a workweek of deprivation; late rising can disrupt your circadian rhythm, making it even harder later to get a full night's rest.
According to Dinges' analysis of data from the 2003 American Time Use Study, the most common reason people shortchange themselves on sleep is work. (The second biggest reason, surprisingly, is that they spend too much time driving around in their cars.) But consider that in giving up two hours of bedtime to do more work, you're losing a quarter of your recommended nightly dose and gaining just 12% more time during the day. What if you could be 12% more productive instead? "You have to realise that if you get a good night's sleep, you will actually be more efficient and get more done the next day. The more you give up on sleep, the harder it is to be productive," says Ancoli-Israel. "What is it going to be?"
If mental sharpness is your goal, the answer is clear: stop depriving yourself, and get a good night's sleep.