Meditation has been used for thousands of years to alter consciousness.
Now scientists have shown that a 12-minute daily meditation can alter the memory, too, for the better.
Fifteen people ages 52 to 77 diagnosed with documented memory deficits were taught a type of meditation called Kirtan Kriya. Seven members of the group had mild age-associated memory impairment, five had mild cognitive impairment, and three had a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. (One patient was excluded from the results because her memory problems prevented her from performing the meditation adequately.)
The type of Kirtan Kriya meditation that the participants performed consisted of sitting comfortably in a chair or on the floor and repeating four sounds — Sa, Ta, Na, Ma — while sequentially touching their thumb to their index finger, middle finger, fourth finger and pinkie. They performed the meditation aloud for two minutes, in a whisper for two minutes, in silence for four minutes, in a whisper for two more minutes, and finally out loud for two minutes.
After eight weeks, brain scans revealed that the people showed increased blood flow in brain areas crucial to memory. Also, tests of verbal fluency, logical memory and other skills showed significant improvement according to the researchers, who reported their results in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.
A comparison group of five people with memory problems who listened to Mozart violin concertos for 12 minutes a day showed no such improvements.
"Anyone can do this," said Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D., one of the lead authors of the article and the medical director of the Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation in Tucson, Ariz. "The people in the study had no experience with meditation, and yet by activating their brain with 12 minutes of meditation a day, they were able to improve their cognition and mental function. It really made their brain healthier."
But there's nothing special about this particular form of meditation, according to Khalsa, other than it's easy to learn and takes little time.
"Any type of meditation is good for your body and brain," he said. "The most fascinating thing about meditation is that the brain loves it."
Khalsa started practicing transcendental meditation more than three decades ago, after the Beatles went to India to learn the technique from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
"I think it's a good technique," Khalsa said. "It reduces stress and promotes relaxation with only 20 minutes of meditation twice a day. Kirtan Kriya meditation takes only 12 minutes a day, plus it's essentially free. You don't have to pay a lot of money to learn it."
After discovering how much meditation helped him, Khalsa started teaching meditation to his patients.
"My patients seemed to benefit from it," said Khalsa, author of Brain Longevity (Grand Central Publishing). "They had less anxiety, less pain. Interestingly their memory and mental function, which was diminished by stress and pain and drugs, improved."
The lead author of the paper, Andrew Newberg, and another co-author, Mark Robert Waldman, both of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, have written a book called How God Changes Your Brain (Ballantine). In it they provide evidence to support their contention that meditation "can make profound and permanent changes in your consciousness and your fundamental perceptions of the world." Meditation, especially when combined with exercise, social interaction and simple smiling, can contribute significantly to the well-being of the brain, they say, but more than that, it can enhance our "mindfulness," and make us more aware of our own experience.
"By simply becoming more aware of what you think, feel, say and do, you train your brain to become more organized and calm," they write. "Stress diminishes, and life begins to feel more pleasant and rich."
Khalsa agrees wholeheartedly with his colleagues. He would like to see more people meditate because he thinks it would enhance their lives, but he now has solid evidence that meditation at the very least improves the memory. And he suspects that the earlier one starts meditating the stronger the benefits to memory will be.
"Fifteen years ago they said nothing could be done for the failing brain. Now it's common knowledge that staying mentally active and getting exercise can help. Maybe 15 years from now people will be saying everyone should do this simple 12-minute exercise to prevent their brain from wearing out."
Tom Valeo writes frequently about health matters. He welcomes reader mail but cannot respond to individual queries. You may write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.