To be mindful is to live a full life. It is to be present, in the here and now, not distracted by wandering thoughts and overwhelming emotions. In short, it is to be master of your own mind. To understand this mind, it is essential to get a direct experience of it, to train it, and to familiarise yourself with the way in which it works. However, before you begin this process, it’s useful to understand why mindfulness is so important and how it impacts our working memory, cognitive function, learning and performance.
Our working memory allows us to hold information in our mind while we use it. It helps us to hold our train of thought, to plan, and to reason. For example, in a professional capacity it may well allow us to work out the best trade, by managing streams of information flowing through the desktop terminals, while at the same time negotiating the appropriate time to buy or sell within a volatile market. In fact, this working memory is so important research has shown it’s a far better indicator of academic and career success than IQ. Interestingly, while our IQ levels are broadly fixed, working memory can fluctuate. While stress is known to cause deterioration in working memory, the practice of mindfulness increases and improves it.
University of Pennsylvania scientists recently undertook a study of the effects of stress on the working memory of US Marines. Their capacity to function effectively was monitored over eight weeks and, as expected, as their Iraq tour of duty drew closer, so their working memory deteriorated. This was attributed to extreme pressure and anxiety. However, those Marines who trained their mind with a simple mindfulness technique for just ten minutes a day not only maintained their cognitive function but improved it.
Dr Amishi Jha, the lead researcher, concluded: “Building mind-fitness with mindfulness training can help anyone who needs to maintain peak performance in extremely stressful circumstances”. Needless to say, this extends to the stressful nature of the banking industry, where this critical edge impacts the bottom line in a very tangible way.
Working memory is also affected by age. Under normal circumstances, as we age our cognitive abilities deteriorate, our working memory capacity decreases and we lose the ability to sustain attention. This is accompanied by physical changes in the brain, such as a loss of grey matter and a thinning-out of the cortex. However, Emory University discovered the practice of mindfulness essentially halts, and can reverse, this natural process. In fact, in a similar study at Harvard, 40–50-year-olds who regularly trained in mindfulness, or meditation as it is referred to in the study, were shown to have the same levels of cortical thickness as 20–30-year-olds.
But mindfulness is not only about halting decline but expanding our mind and ability to learn, to make skilful decisions and progress in our area of expertise. In this age of information-overload, many people approach learning with anxiety but trying to learn under stress is much less efficient. And that’s because these emotions (stemming from our limbic system) actively disturb the functioning of our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that helps us think clearly and process information. Mindfulness not only reduces activity in the limbic region, but also improves connectivity in the prefrontal cortex, essentially allowing us to remain in an optimal zone for learning. And that’s not all.
In order to learn a new skill well, we need to be able to hold new information in the spotlight of our attention. The greater our capacity to sustain attention and resist distraction in this way, the greater our chances of encoding it into our memory and recalling it when required. Because no matter how great our mind is, if it is easily distracted, it will never achieve its full potential. Researchers from Harvard recently discovered that mindfulness helps regulate the alpha brainwave rhythm, which is thought to “turn down the volume” on distracting thoughts. Lead researcher Catherine Kerr says, “Mindfulness meditators more quickly adjusted the brain wave that screens out distraction, and this could explain their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.”
So, no matter whether you are seeking new and improved skills in learning, maintaining performance in your current field of expertise, or simply preventing the inevitable slow-down and reduced cognitive function that comes with aging, it would seem that mindfulness might just hold the key for us all.
Andy Puddicombe is the co-founder of Headspace, and the author of Get Some Headspace. To learn a quick and easy mindfulness technique, sign up to his Take10 programme for free at getsomeheadspace.com
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