Can Meditation And Mental Exercise Really Train Your Brain? The Answer: Yes by Alvaro Fernandez

You probably have read many times by now that a brain-healthy lifestyle requires a balanced nutrition, stress management, physical exercise and mental stimulation.

The question is, what exactly is mental stimulation? and, is all mental stimulation the same? is doing your first crossword puzzle the same as doing crossword puzzle number one million?

The answer: it’s not all the same. Real mental stimulation or mental exercise is different from “easy”, routine, mental activity.

Let’s take the example of physical activity. There is a clear difference between physical activity and physical exercise. Physical activity occurs whenever we move our body or engage in a leisure activity that involves moving our body (e.g., playing pool). Physical exercise (e.g. jogging) refers to the repeated and structured activity of particular parts of our bodies. Both physical activity and physical exercise are good, but it is exercise the one that helps build muscle and improve functionality.

Similarly, mental exercise (you can also call it “brain training”), goes beyond mental activity. Mental activity takes place whenever one is awake, ranging from merely day dreaming to reading a book or learning a new language. Mental exercise or brain training refers to the structured use of cognitive exercises or techniques. Its aim is to improve specific brain functions.

Understanding the difference between mental activity and mental exercise is crucial. As an example, many people feel that they are doing the best for their brain after having completed their daily crossword puzzle or sudoku. However crossword puzzles challenge a relatively narrow range of cognitive skill and thus stimulate only a limited range of brain regions. A 1999 study showed that increased amount of experience in doing crossword puzzles does not modify the effect of age measured in tasks requiring vocabulary and reasoning (Hambrick et al.,1999). Crosswords puzzles generate mental activity but they do not constitute a brain training program!

This brings our attention to a key concept in mental exercise: variety. One needs a variety of challenging exercises in order to stimulate the whole brain. Recent recommendations made by a panel of experts reviewing a poll by the American Society on Aging (2006) stated: “A single activity, no matter how challenging, is not sufficient to sustain the kind of mental acuity that virtually everyone can achieve.” Even if one’s goal is to improve memory functions, other brain functions need stimulation to achieve that goal. For instance, attention and concentration are essential to good memorization.

Structured brain fitness programs can help improve important brain capacities in a more efficient manner that normal daily activities may. A combination of both may be ideal. Learning a complex skill such as learning the piano helps train and develop some parts of the brain. Well-designed training programs may help train and develop other parts. Defined as the structured use of cognitive exercises or techniques aimed at improving specific brain functions, brain training includes a range of research-supported techniques or approaches, such as cognitive therapy and meditation, along with the most popular brain fitness software.

An example: Why Meditation is Brain Training

You may be wondering what meditation has to do with brain training. In fact, meditation has been shown to improve specific cognitive functions such as attention. As such it can be considered as a brain training technique.

A number of studies have compared people who practice meditation to people who do not. The problem with these studies is that people in both groups can be very different. Thus the benefits observed in the group practicing meditation could be due to other things.

Recently, a more controlled study was conducted that showed a specific effect of meditation on attention. In this study, Posner and his colleagues (2007) randomly assigned participants to either an Integrative Body-Mind Training (IBMT) or to a relaxation training. Both trainings lasted 5 days, 20mn per day. IBMT is a meditation technique developed in China in the 1990s. It stresses a balanced state of relaxation while focusing attention. Thought control is achieved with the help of a coach through posture, relaxation, body-mind harmony and balance. The results of this study showed that after training, participants in the IBMT training group showed more improvement in a task measuring executive attention than the control group. The IBMT training also helped reduced cortisol levels caused by mental stress.

Styles of meditation differ. Some technique use concentration meditation, mantra, mindfulness meditation, while others rely on body relaxation, breathing practice and mental imagery. It is not known so far what aspects of meditation or which techniques are the best to train one’s brain. Scientists are researching what elements of meditation may help manage stress and improve memory. For instance, Dr. Dr. Newberg and colleagues have been conducting a scientific experiment by asking fifteen old adults to practice the type of meditation called Kirtan Kriya for 8 weeks. Preliminary results in terms of the impact on mental capacity seem promising.

In summary, yes, “Use it or Lose It”, but please remember that not all ways to use our brains are the same.

It may be time for a new saying: “Exercise it and Improve It”.

Copyright (c) 2010 SharpBrains

About The Author

Alvaro Fernandez is the CEO of SharpBrains.com, an educational website for cognitive health and brain fitness that offers hundreds of articles and brain teasers, a free monthly eNewsletter, blogs, and much more. Please visit http://www.sharpbrains.com/

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