One fortnight to change your mind?

Mindfulness has permeated the popular consciousness, with an emphasis on what it can d for you (lose weight! cure depression! be a better leader! and more!). Like exercise, mindfulness meditation is becoming a potential cure-all and everyone wants the results…without the long hard slog of practicing every day. We are starting to see the meditation equivalent of fad diets and diet pills, in the form of apps that offer a shortcut to meditation’s altered state of consciousness.

The desire for shortcuts – or at least paths that promise benefits sooner than months or years down the road – lends new urgency to research investigating meditation training shorter than the usual 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program. We knew, for example, that even just a 5-week program of meditation could shift brain waves. The latest meditation research to cross my desk suggests that even a 2-week program of meditation training can – at least temporarily – change the way you think.

This particular meditation program was interested in offering meditation as an alternative to the ever-expanding SAT preparation industry, interested in how meditation training could improve reading comprehension (on a graduate version of the SATs) and reduce distracting thoughts (measured by computer probes that ask if, just now, students were on task or not). Half of the students completed a 2-week meditation program:  4 meetings a week, for 45 minutes each, of which 10-20 minutes was spent meditating, with a 10-minute daily meditation homework, for a total of about 3 to 4 hours of actual meditation. The other half completed a nutrition science class with the same schedule, and a food diary for their homework. Meditating students showed significant improvements in reading comprehension scores (purportedly equivalent to 16 percentile points) and reduced distracting thoughts, while the nutrition students showed no change in their test-taking.

This doesn’t quite spell the end of Kaplan and its fellows. My main concern in suggesting that meditation can improve your SAT score is that this study only had the students complete 20 minutes of testing – one reading comprehension passage and one memory test – which is about the same amount of time that the students had ever spent meditating at once. We can hope that practicing meditation for 10 minutes at a time will give you some help reducing distractions on a nearly 4-hour test, of course, but we can’t be sure that it will have a dramatic influence on your final score.

This study does offer a more palatable short path to the benefits of meditation (although a 2-week program may seem just as odious as an instant-zen app to some practitioners). Perhaps we can suggest a 10-minute meditation the same way the health programs suggest walking 10,000 steps: it may not give you the full range of benefits seen with a more rigorous program, but it will do you some good and is within your reach.
Mrazek MD, Franklin MS, Phillips DT, Baird B, & Schooler JW. (2013). Mindfulness training improves working memory capacity and GRE performance while reducing mind wandering. Psychological Science, 24, 776-781 PMID: 23538911


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