If you tend to forget your homework or are easily distracted, take heed. A new study shows that teens can improve their memory with a practice known as mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness involves paying attention to what is happening in the current moment. It requires pulling the mind back to the present when thoughts wander. No worrying about the future. Or over something that happened in the past. Just focus on the here and now. And do so without judging events as good or bad.
This mindfulness can be applied to the practice of meditation. In meditation, people focus their attention to get rid of jumbled — and often stressful — thoughts. Basic meditation usually involves “clearing the mind” by sitting still and focusing on the breath. To train in mindfulness meditation, a person also starts by focusing on the breath. Then he or she concentrates on other bodily sensations. For example, by thinking about the crown of the head, someone can imagine any headache or stress dissolving away. That attention is then moved to different parts of the body. The goal is to reduce tense muscles and stress. With practice, people learn to maintain an awareness of the present moment — and any stress — while being active. In class, for example. Or while out walking.
Until recently, most studies on mindfulness meditation involved adults. Such studies showed that this technique changes the brain. Its cortex gets bigger. That's the region behind the forehead involved in thinking.
Adults also improved their working memory. That’s the ability to remember things for short periods of time. It’s like a mental notepad for jotting down a phone number or directions. People are able to remember large numbers of things. But only a handful can be thought about at any one time. Those are the ones in working memory. Distractions can cause someone to “lose” something from working memory. But mindfulness meditation helped adults to focus on such items, aiding their memory.
Kristen Jastrowski Mano led a team that investigated whether teens also benefitted from mindfulness meditation. Jastrowski Mano is a psychologist at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. She and her colleagues recruited 172 students at a junior high school in San Diego, Calif. All ranged from 12 to 15 years old. The researchers randomly assigned each student to one of three groups. Two of the groups practiced either mindfulness meditation or yoga. A third group was placed on a wait list.
Yoga involves moving the body into specific postures. Doing them correctly requires focused attention. But the attention is different from the type experienced during mindfulness meditation, explains Jastrowski Mano. No one in the wait-list group changed their daily routine during the study. Including them provided the researchers with a control for comparison.
Students in all three groups completed questionnaires at the start of the study. Their answers indicated how aware the teens were of their thoughts and attitudes. That offered a gauge of how mindful they were. Students also completed a series of memory tasks. These tested the students’ ability to remember letters and solve simple math problems. Students had to use his or her working memory to arrive at a correct answer.
The mindfulness group then met with meditation instructors during their physical education (PE) class. Over four weeks, they learned different types of mindfulness meditation. They were also given a CD so they could meditate at home. The yoga group also met during PE. Over the same four weeks, they learned to do certain yoga poses. The scientists selected poses that required students to pay attention to their posture and position. That made yoga a different type of mindful activity. Wait-listed students attended their regular PE class.
At the end of the four weeks, all of the students completed the questionnaires and memory tests a second time. The researchers then compared those scores to the earlier ones.
Students given the meditation training performed much better on the memory tasks. They jumped 10 points (from 34 to 44) on a 75-point scale of working memory. The yoga group improved only four points. The control group showed no improvement. These findings were published November 11 in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Mindfulness meditation causes structural changes in the brain, explains Jastrowski Mano. It actually alters connections between brain cells. That is how adults end up with an enlarged cortex. And that may explain why meditation improved memory in the teens better than yoga did.
Meditation requires sustained attention, Jastrowski Mano explains. Not only do participants have to focus their attention, but they also have to notice distractions. Then they must choose to ignore those distractions, redirecting their attention back to the current experience. In that way, the practice is closely related to the function of working memory, she notes. That's because working memory requires holding on to thoughts and not letting other things distract from them.
The findings are an important contribution to mindfulness research, says Patricia Jennings. She is an education researcher at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She was not involved with the study. “Working memory plays an important role in critical learning processes associated with academic success,” Jennings notes. An exciting next step would be to see if these improvements in working memory influence academic performance.