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How meditation can make you a better learner

Meditation doesn't just reduce stress or make you a more spiritual person; it changes your brain in a variety of ways that can make it easier to learn new information.

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  • Mindfulness meditation has been shown to have a wide array of effects on the human brain.
  • Many of those effects work together to improve the human brain's ability to learn new information.
  • If you're interested in becoming a smarter human being, consider incorporating meditation into your daily routine.


People meditate for all sorts of reasons. Some do it for spiritual purposes, others do it to reduce stress, and still others do it to manage their mental health. Meditation is a broad practice with many disparate effects, so it makes sense that people's motivations would be correspondingly varied. But there's more reasons to meditate than to simply feel relaxed or attain spiritual goals — one such reason is to become a better learner.

Meditation and learning

First, let's define meditation. "At base, in essence," said psychologist Daniel Goleman in a Big Think interview, "every kind of meditation retrains attention." It can take many forms, but the majority of Western empirical research focuses on mindfulness meditation, in which the meditator focuses their attention on an experience in the present moment in an accepting, non-judgemental way. Commonly, this focus is placed upon the breath. There are other forms of meditation, such as the loving-kindness meditation common in Buddhist practices, where the meditator focuses on cultivating compassion for all beings. The bulk of scientific research, however, has been conducted on mindfulness meditation.

One of the best-known benefits of mindfulness meditation is in its ability to reduce stress. Robust research has shown that meditation is a powerful tool against stress, even for those suffering from anxiety or other mental disorders. In turn, stress plays a powerful role in learning. On the one hand, high levels of stress can leave us with an excessively strong memory, as is the case in PTSD. On the other, chronic stress inhibits the growth of neurons in the hippocampus, making it more difficult to form new memories. Acute stress, too, makes it more difficult for us to retrieve memories that we've already formed. By practicing mindfulness meditation, we can reduce the impact of stress on our ability to form and retrieve memories.

Train Your Brain: Mindfulness Meditation for Anxiety, Depression, ADD and PTSD | Daniel Goleman

Meditation also appears to protect your brain from the negative effects of multitasking. Several studies have shown that multitasking impairs your ability to learn. "The brain actually does not do multitasking," said Goleman. "It doesn't do several things at once in parallel, rather it works in serial and it switches very rapidly from one thing to the next." Once you switch away from a task that you've been focusing on, it takes time for you to ramp up your concentration again to where it was previously. "Unless," says Goleman, "you've done that ten minutes of mindfulness; focused on your breath, for example, just watched it in and out, noticed when your mind wandered, brought it back." In this case, your concentration returns much more quickly.

In addition to protecting your brain against the deleterious effects of multitasking and stress, mindfulness also bolsters your working memory. Not only does meditation promote growth in the hippocampus, it also trains your brain to better manage something called proactive interference. Proactive interference occurs when older memories in the brain interfere with the retrieval of newer and more task-relevant memories, an effect that some researchers theorize accounts for nearly all instances of forgetting items in your working memory. One study attributed this improved ability to handle proactive interference to mindfulness meditation's focus on the present moment — being more present enabled study participants to prioritize recent, task-relevant memories and remember information better.

How can I get started meditating?

The nice thing about meditation is that it requires essentially nothing — just a quiet space and perhaps a chair. You don't have to subscribe to any religion or philosophy to engage in it and reap its benefits. Here's a very simple way to start meditating:

  1. Sit down in a comfortable chair. You can sit however you like, but it's probably best to keep your hands in your lap and to sit with good posture.
  2. Set a ten-minute timer on your phone.
  3. Close your eyes.
  4. Pay attention to your breath.
  5. As your mind wanders away from your breath (it will), don't get upset at yourself; just acknowledge whatever thought distracted you and return to paying attention to your breath.
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 until your time is up.

Many of the benefits of meditating are essentially instantaneous, though they'll fade as the day goes on. As your meditation practice becomes a more significant part of your routine, those benefits will also become a more enduring part of your life. Some people find it useful to use a guided meditation app, like Headspace, or to read books both to learn more and to stay motivated, like Mindfulness in Plain English or How to Meditate. But if you're a student or are simply interested in becoming a better learner throughout your life, incorporating a bit of meditation into your day may be the extra edge that you need.



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A neural crêpe

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So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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