Cognitive gains from meditation last for seven years, research shows

New research from UC Davis shows forty volunteers still experiencing cognitive gains seven years after an intensive retreat.

If you’ve ever meditated, you likely know the positive feelings that follow a seated practice. You feel lighter, calmer, focused—the general contours of the interplay of conscious intention and neurochemistry. Later, in the midst of chaos—stress at work; relationship trouble; death of a loved one; spending five minutes on Twitter—you wonder where that sense of inner peace went.


Life is always relatively turbulent and peaceful. Meditation is no cure-all, though its effects persist long beyond the initial experience. At least seven years, according to a recent study conducted at the University of California, Davis, published in Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, proclaims. 

The goal of this study was to discover if attentional capacities last beyond an initial period after intensive meditation. The team, led by Clifford Aaron, a research scientist at UC Davis’s Center for Mind and Brain, and lead author Anthony Zanesco, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Miami (formerly at UC Davids), had already assessed the cognitive benefits on attentional performance after three months of “full-time meditation.” This new study represents a seven-year follow-up.

The initial study is based on the Shamatha Project, a series of two three-month retreats conducted at the Shambhala Mountain Center in 2007. The study followed sixty volunteers practicing Buddhist mindfulness meditation for six hours a day. The benefits of immediate changes in the meditator’s brains are now well-documented. The UC Davis team wanted to better understand how this plays out over the long-term.

Longitudinal investigations that track practitioners across periods of training and years of practice are critical for understanding the durability of trait-level cognitive changes associated with meditation, and for broadly characterizing the influence of attentional training on cognitive development across the lifespan.

Since cognitive decline, both in terms of memory and executive function, becomes more problematic as we age, the team wanted to know if meditation can help stave off such cognitive troubles. Many people remain sharp and lucid into their ninth and even tenth decades of life, so such a decline is by no means guaranteed. After the results of this study came in, the team was confident that answer is yes, meditation helps keep cognition humming along. As Zanesco comments,

This study is the first to offer evidence that intensive and continued meditation practice is associated with enduring improvements in sustained attention and response inhibition, with the potential to alter longitudinal trajectories of cognitive change across a person's life. 

Immediately following the initial study, volunteers noted improvements in attentional capacity, ability to deal with stress, and general well-being. This alone is an important (and clinically repeated) phenomenon, especially in an age of increasing psychological disorders. As the NY Times reports, for example, anti-depressant withdrawal is proving impossible for many people suffering from depression. Alternative non-pharmacological interventions, such as meditation, as well as psychedelic therapy, need to be investigated, considering that depression rates and prescription rates are both rising.

Depression is only one of the problems meditation addresses. The volunteers in the original group followed up on their gains at six and eighteen months. Now, seven years later, forty of the participants continue to mediate an hour a day. The gains experienced in Colorado are still present. This is in stark contrast to antidepressants, which often lose efficacy over time, requiring stronger doses and the assistance of other drugs to counter the side effects of the increased dosages as well as to better promote the initial effects.

The more time people put into meditation, the clearer the gains. Those at the upper end (an hour a day) showed no signs of cognitive decline. Though there were no further improvements after the period of intensive meditation, the gains were preserved by a regular practice. As the team concludes,

Continued meditation practice seems to be associated with substantial experiential and developmental influences on practitioners’ attentional capacities over the lifespan.

These results could provide alternative therapies for those suffering from psychological disorders, attentional problems, and the cognitive decline in memory and executive function we normally associate as a necessary consequence of aging. That is not necessarily the case, provided we put interventions such as meditation into action.

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Want to forge stronger social bonds? Bring beer.

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Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human
."

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

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