Can Meditation Improve Performance?

Jan 30, 2020 | Stress

Can meditation improve performance?

CAN MEDITATION IMPROVE PERFORMANCE?

Meditation is on everyone’s mind at the moment. Pardon the pun!  This is the first in a three-part series of articles that look at meditation. This article asks the question: “can meditation improve performance?” We will look at both performance at work and in life in general. The second article looks at the effects of meditation on the brain since there is an abundance of research on that subject. The last article will discuss tips on how to meditate and how to master the art of meditation.

So, what’s all the fuss about?  No doubt most of you have heard of some of the benefits of meditation. Perhaps some of you have tried to meditate.  If so, I am sure you will agree it is very relaxing.  Which is something most of us can benefit from? However, can meditation really improve performance?

I have to wonder if all the many benefits that I have heard are backed up by proven studies.  That’s the purpose of this article. It concentrates on the empirical evidence.  I will warn you, there are a lot!  So for simplicity’s sake, I have divided them into:

  • Can meditation improve performance at work (assuming mental capabilities are required at work)
  • Can meditation improve performance in life in general

This article is quite long due to the volume of research, so I have summarised the findings here:

 

HOW MEDITATION IMPROVES PERFORMANCE AT WORK:

  • Increases Cognition
  • Increases Attention/Concentration
  • Increases Open-Mindedness
  • Reduces Stress/Anxiety
  • Increases Serotonin (happiness)
  • Increases GABA (relaxing)
  • Increases Dopamine (pleasure)
  • Increases Melatonin (sleep cycle)
  • Reduces depression
  • Increases brain size
  • Increases brain tissue density
  • Slows brain ageing

HOW MEDITATION IMPROVES PERFORMANCE IN LIFE IN GENERAL:

  • Improves athlete performance
  • Improves Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Strengthens immune system
  • Management of chronic pain
  • Slows ageing

 

Can Meditation Improve Performance at Work?

Firstly let’s look at ways that you might want to improve your performance at work.  The following studies focus on cognition, attention, concentration, open-mindedness, forgetfulness and error-prone.

Cognition

Cognition is the brain’s ability to acquire and understand information, knowledge through thought, experience, and the senses. All of which would be helpful at work.  OK, let’s see what the research shows…

In a study conducted by Osnabrück University in Germany, 34 participants were divided into two groups. The mindfulness meditation group practised 10-minutes of meditation each day whilst the control group practised relaxation exercises over eight-weeks.  Participants were given a task involving tracking two to five discs moving on a computer screen, among 16 identical discs that are also moving on the screen. The study found:

“improvements in specific cognitive functions as a result of engaging in meditation practice”

A study conducted by the University of Kentucky studied the effects of novice meditators who performed a validated psychomotor vigilance task.

“A psychomotor vigilance task is a sustained-attention, a reaction-timed task that measures the speed with which subjects respond to a visual stimulus

Wikipedia

The participants completed 40 minutes of meditation, nap or watched television, on six different days (two separate days for each condition). Those that meditated performed 10% better. The study concluded that:

“These results suggest that meditation provides at least a short-term performance improvement even in novice meditators”

Attention/Concentration

A study conducted at the Shambhala Mountain Centre over a 3-month retreat consisted of 60 participants, divided into two groups of 30 participants each. The retreat group and the control group. The control group participated in week-long assessments but otherwise went about their normal daily activities. The retreat group resided at the Shambhala Mountain Centre and participated in a 3-month retreat. All participants were invited to participate in the 6-month, 1.5 years and 7 years of follow-up sessions. The Retreat Group practised daily 6 hourly meditation and 45 minute Four Immeasurable Meditation (compassion, loving-kindness, empathetic joy, and equanimity). The study concluded that

“intensive and continued meditation is associated with enduring improvements in sustained attention”

 

A study of 100 people, 50 long-term meditators and a 50-person control group found that long-term meditation may result in increased attention processing. Years of meditation practise ranged between 4 and 46 years. MRI scans were analysed from both groups and significant differences were observed between meditators and controls. Specifically, concerning grey matter asymmetry in the medial parietal lobe.  In addition, significant correlations between grey matter asymmetry and the number of meditation practice years were noted. The study concluded

“that long-term meditation may result in changes in attention processing”

A similar study conducted by Liverpool John Moores University included 40 meditators and 40 control group participants. The meditators received 3-hours of meditation training and were requested to meditate for 10 minutes a day. After 8 and 16 weeks, all participants completed a computerised Stroop task (a measure of attentional control) while the 64-channel EEG was recorded.  

“The results suggest that mindfulness meditation may improve attention control”

Open-Mindedness

A study conducted by the  University of the Negev found that meditation reduces cognitive rigidity due to rigid and repetitive thought patterns, enabling more “open-mindedness” without being “blinded by past experience”.

“The authors conclude that mindfulness meditation reduces cognitive rigidity via the tendency to be “blinded” by experience”

Mistakes

Recent research from Michigan University found that meditation altered brain activity and enabled meditators to detect and pay attention to errors.  Thereby making them less error-prone. In this study, more than 200 female participants, who had never meditated before, were divided into two groups, meditators or control group.  The meditators were guided through a 20-minute open-monitoring meditation exercise. This type of meditation focuses inward on your awareness on feelings, thoughts or sensations. After the meditation, participants were taken through a computerised distraction test.  Researchers measured brain activity through an EEG. Researchers concluded that:

“Our findings showed that a single session of guided OM meditation modulates ERP” (ERP refers to error processing)

 

Mental Health

Stress and anxiety

A review conducted by the University of California found a connection between meditation and cortisol. Participants were tested for cortisol levels before and after meditation training as well as after a 3-month retreat.  Participants also filled out a self-assessment questionnaire.  A correlation was found between high meditation practices and low cortisol levels.

Meditation reduces the stress hormone cortisol as indicated in numerous studies including this one from Italy where researchers put 21 adults through a 30-hour meditation and stress training session conducted over four days. The study found that the amplitude and duration of the cortisol response decreased after the four days, whereas no effects were found in the 19-person control group.

One conducted by the University of Melbourne reviewed forty-five studies and concluded that meditation reduces cortisol, C – reactive protein, blood pressure, heart rate, triglycerides and tumour necrosis factor-alpha. In summary, the review summarised that meditation practice leads to decreased physiological markers of stress in a range of populations

The Johns Hopkins University reviewed 47 trials covering 3,515 participants, to determine the efficacy of meditation programs in improving stress-related outcomes. Specifically, anxiety, depression, stress/distress, positive mood, mental health-related quality of life, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep, pain, and weight. They found that mindfulness meditation programs resulted in improved stress-related outcomes.

Science Daily reports that a paper presented at  2018 Experimental Biology meeting, held April 21-25 in San Diego, concluded that meditation can improve anxiety from only a single one -hour introductory session.

Hormones and Neurotransmitters

Serotonin

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter linked with happiness and pleasure.

A study of experienced meditators indicated a higher level of serotonin both before meditation and a much higher level after meditation when compared to the controls.

A review  by Clarke University indicated that meditation can significantly affect hormones and neurotransmitters such as cortisol, dehydroepiandrosterone, serotonin, melatonin, and epinephrine

GABA

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain, is an inhibitory neurotransmitter and its increase can relax the mind.

One study analysed 35 people’s brain activity before and after a sixty-minute meditation session and found a 10% increase in GABA. Compared with the control group of 35 people who watched television and indicated no change

Dopamine

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that indicates pleasure and is connected with addiction.

A study conducted by JF Kennedy Institute observed an increase in dopamine levels in the ventral striatum area of the brain of meditators during the practice of Yoga Nidra meditation

Melatonin

Melatonin regulates the sleep-wake cycle.

One study asked participants to alternate between one-hour meditation before sleep and one-hour of sitting quietly on alternate (control) nights. Melatonin levels increased on meditation nights and remained the same as pre-study rates on control nights.

Depression

The University of California reviewed 18 studies to determine if meditation affected mental health, specifically depression. The review covered 1,173 patients.  They found that there was a substantial body of evidence indicating that meditation is beneficial for patients with depressive disorders

Another study found that meditation and aerobic exercise performed together helps reduce depression, according to Rutgers.

 

The Brain

Brain Structure Changes

In 2014 the University of British Columbia reviewed 21 neuroimaging studies covering approximately 300 meditation practitioners and analysed 123 brain morphology differences. The table below summarises the findings, indicating numerous brain structural changes:

Can Meditation Improve Performance

Numerous studies have shown changes in brain structure and grey matter. Here are some:

 

UCLA conducted a study of 6 older adults with sleep disturbances. Participants attended a weekly, 2-hour, 6-session, group-based course in mindfulness meditation. An average of 10 to 30 minutes of mindful experiential practice was practised in each class. In addition, participants conducted mindfulness practice at home with 5 minutes daily, advancing to 20 minutes daily by the final session. The study found a significant increase in grey matter, neuroplastic changes are associated with improvements in a psychological state variable.

 

Another study trained 16 healthy adults to meditation over 8 weeks and compared them to a 17-person control group. They found the meditation group had changes in their grey matter with increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus which controls learning and memory processes, as well as changes to areas that control emotion regulation, self-referential processing and perspective-taking.

 

A  6-week study of older adults (mean 66.5years old) showed an increase in brain grey matter after a weekly 2-hour meditation session. A total of 6 sessions.

Amygdala

The amygdala is a region of the brain known to coordinate fear, anxiety, and stress as well as the physiological stress response. A study of 130 adults indicated reduced right amygdala (indicated by neuroimaging) after a 3-day intensive mindfulness meditation training intervention. Compared to the control group who attended a 3-day relaxation training intervention without a mindfulness component and reported no change.

A study with 26 stressed but otherwise healthy adults was conducted over 8-week mindfulness program consisting of weekly group meeting and home mindfulness practises.  Following the program, participants reported a reduction in stress which correlated positively with decreases in right basolateral amygdala grey matter density.

A review of 21 neuroimaging studies covering approximately 300 meditators concluded that the grey and white matter may be shaped by meditation.

Another review concluded that meditation impacts the function of the medial cortex and associated default mode network as well as insula and amygdala

Reduction in brain-ageing

A study of 50 experienced meditators and 50 control group conducted by UCLA concluded that meditation may be brain-protective and associated with a reduced age-related tissue decline. Years of meditation experience ranged between 4 and 46 years. They found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged.

 

Can Meditation Improve Performance at the Gym & Life In General?

Improved Athletic Performance

 

The ABC reported on several athletes who believe that meditation gave them the edge.  Read the article here.

Let’s look at the physical aspects of meditation.  Can meditation improve your health and pain management?

Irritable bowel syndrome

The University of North Carolina conducted a study to review the effects of meditation on irritable bowel syndrome. 75 female participants were divided into two groups – the mindfulness group and support group. The training was provided over eight weekly and one half-day intensive sessions of either mindfulness group (MG) training or a support group (SG). A decrease in IBS symptoms of the mindfulness group vs support group were (26.4% vs. 6.2% reduction) and at 3-month follow-up (38.2% vs. 11.8%). The study concluded that

 “mindfulness training has a substantial therapeutic effect on bowel symptom severity, improves health-related quality of life, and reduces distress”

Lowering Blood Pressure

A study of 298 students was broken up into a transcendental meditation group and control group. A sub-group of participants at risk for hypertension were also assessed.  Blood pressure, psychological distress, and coping ability were assessed at the beginning and after 3-months. The study concluded that:

“The transcendental meditation program decreased blood pressure in association with decreased psychological distress, and increased coping in young adults at risk for hypertension”

Strengthens the Immune System

A review of 20 randomised control trials, which included 1602 participants. sought to find out if mindfulness meditation had a positive effect on immune system biomarkers. They focused specifically on five immune system outcomes: (1) circulating and stimulated inflammatory proteins, (2) cellular transcription factors and gene expression, (3) immune cell count, (4) immune cell aging, and (5) antibody response.  They found:

 “mindfulness meditation appears to be associated with reductions in pro-inflammatory processes, increases in cell-mediated defence parameters, and increases in enzyme activity that guards against cell aging”

Management of Chronic Pain

A review of 38 randomised controlled trials, concluded that mindfulness meditation improves pain and depression symptoms and quality of life

Another review conducted by the Queen Mary University of London concluded that Mindfulness meditation has the most prominent effect on psychological aspects of living with chronic pain, improving associated depression and quality of life.

A study by the National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) found that mindful meditation reduces pain sensations in the body without using the brain’s natural opiates. The research suggested that combining meditation practices with medication for treating pain conditions like osteoarthritis, headaches, and other chronic pains can be useful for providing long-term remedies.

Ageing

Telomeres have been used as a biomarker for ageing. Telomeres are the structures found at the end of chromosomes (see diagram below) and protect the chromosome from DNA damage. As a cell divides the telomeres are shortened. Telomere length reduces in size as you age and with oxidation.  Telomerase is an enzyme responsible for maintenance of the length of telomeres. Telomerase restores frayed telomeres.

A study conducted by Davis Centre for Mind and Brain reviewed 30 participants who meditated for 6 hours a day for 3 months. This group was compared to a 30 participant control group and matched for age, sex, body mass index, and prior meditation experience.  The study concluded that telomerase activity was significantly greater in retreat participants than in the control group at the end of the retreat. In addition, self-reported increases in perceived control decreases in neuroticism, and increases in both mindfulness and purpose in life were greater in the retreat group.

 

SUMMARY

So, can meditation improve performance at work, the gym and in life in general? After looking at the empirical evidence, I would have to say, yes.

Can meditation improve performance? 

Meditation may improve the following:
·       cognition
·       attention/concentration
·       open-mindedness
·       mental health
·       hormones and neurotransmitters to make us feel happier, enable sleep, reduce anxiety
·       reduce depression
·       change brain structure
·       protect the brain from ageing

 

Each of these aspects will have a positive impact on performance at work.  In addition, the following meditation benefits may be possible for athletes and in life in general:

·       improvement in athlete performance
·       reduction of irritable bowel symptoms
·       lowering of blood pressure
·       management of chronic pain
·       slow down ageing

 

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