Ongoing studies of mindfulness meditation suggest the beneficial effects of meditation on pain and working memory may result from an improved ability to regulate the brain’s alpha rhythm.
Electrical activity in the brain can be displayed as wave forms. Beta brain waves signify a working brain, alpha waves a relaxed or reflective brain, theta a drowsy yet creative period, and delta waves sleep and dreaming.
The alpha rhythm is particularly active in the cells that process touch, sight and sound in the brain’s outermost layer, the cortex, where it helps to suppress irrelevant or distracting sensations and regulate the flow of sensory information between brain regions.
This rhythm is thought to “turn down the volume” on distracting information, which suggests that a key value of meditation may be helping the brain deal with an often overstimulating world.
Previous studies have suggested that attention can be used to regulate the alpha rhythm and, in turn, sensory perception.
When an individual anticipates a touch, sight or sound, the focusing of attention toward the expected stimulus induces a lower alpha wave height in cortical cells that would handle the expected sensation, which actually “turns up the volume” of those cells.
At the same time the height of the alpha wave in cells that would handle irrelevant or distracting information increases, turning the volume in those regions down.
Because mindfulness meditation – in which practitioners direct nonjudgmental attention to their sensations, feelings and state of mind – has been associated with improved performance on attention-based tasks, the research team decided to investigate whether individuals trained in the practice also showed enhanced regulation of the timing and intensity of alpha rhythms.
Researchers discovered individuals who participated in an eight-week mindfulness meditation program were able to focus on tasks and remember new information significantly better than members of a control group.
The report will appear in the journal Brain Research Bulletin and has been released online.
“Mindfulness meditation has been reported to enhance numerous mental abilities, including rapid memory recall,” said lead author Catherine Kerr, Ph.D.
“Our discovery that mindfulness meditators more quickly adjusted the brain wave that screens out distraction could explain their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.”
Source: Massachusetts General Hospital