Just 10 minutes of meditation turbocharges your brain
A new study finds that even minutes of meditation or mindfulness increases your cognitive capabilities.
A new study published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience finds that just 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation can improve a person's cognitive abilities, provided they're not too neurotic to begin with. According to Hedy Kober, senior author and associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at Yale, “We have known for a while that people who practice meditation for a few weeks or months tend to perform better on cognitive tests, but now we know you don't have to spend weeks practicing to see improvement." She adds, “We don't know if longer meditation sessions, or multiple sessions, would improve their cognitive scores, and we look forward to testing that in future studies." Her co-lead on the project was Catherine Norris at Swarthmore.
How the studies worked
The researchers performed two studies on male and female Swarthmore students. Subjects of the first were 37 students, a third of them female. The second involved 56 students, divided about evenly between male and female.
Congruent and incongruent Flanker tasks
Subjects' cognitive capabilities were divided into response times—“RTs"—and levels of accuracy as they performed Flanker tasks. A Flanker task presents you a string of five characters (or colors, or images, etc.) arranged in a row. Your job is to press a specified keyboard key when you see one of a particular pair of characters in the middle position, or a different key when you see one of another pair. (You can take an online Flanker task demo to see for yourself what it's like.)
Sometimes the non-relevant characters on either side of the central character are the same as the central character. Such a trial is called “congruent." If the surrounding characters are not the same as the central one, they're “incongruent." Previous studies have found that the brain processes congruent and incongruent Flanker trials differently, even if you think you barely notice anything outside the center. A Flanker task activates your anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC, and the level of activity is higher for incongruous tasks, at least initially.
(Credit: Kober, et al/Big Think)
In the first study, students were divided randomly into two blindfolded groups—the blindfolds were to reduce distractions as they listened. One group listened to a 10-minute meditation/mindfulness audio recording presenting mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR. The other group listened to a 10-minute control recording. The control recording matched the MBSR recording “on number of words, word frequencies, voice, cadence, and length," although, of course, with different content.
After listening to the MBSR recording or the control recording, the now-unblindfolded subjects were introduced to Flanker testing and allowed 12 trial runs before the official test. Afterward, each filled out a Big 5 Personality Inventory to help track the effect of neuroticism in the data. There's been a lot of interest on whether or not meditation can help alleviate neuroticism; in this study, things were reversed, with neuroticism adversely affecting meditation's potential effects. Each subject also took a demographic survey and was debriefed.
(Credit: Kober, et al/Big Think)
In the second study, researchers took a slightly different tack. The Flanker task was a more extended “attention network test," or ANT. Subjects were given instructions on the test and given 24 practice trials before being outfitted with EEG electrode nets for real-time monitoring of brain activity — “the researchers wanted to investigate neural correlates of the effects of meditation on attention." After listening to the recording or a control recording, subjects performed the ANT Flanker test. Afterward, the electrodes were removed, and the subjects were again given a Big Five test as well as a demographic survey, and finally, debriefed.
What researchers found
Study 1 results
Response time (RT): There was no difference in RTs when the group performed congruent Flanker tasks compared to those who didn't.
Accuracy: Interestingly, although MBSR subjects performed significantly more accurately than the control group with incongruent trials, there was no discernible difference between them on congruent trials. It may be that meditation helps reduce the stress inherent in the more confusing incongruent trials.
Effect of neuroticism: Researchers found “individuals higher in neuroticism did not exhibit any performance boost following meditation. Neuroticism may thus prevent individuals from reaping the benefits of an initial, brief meditation."
Overall: Study 1 found “a brief 10-min guided mindfulness meditation instruction period can improve executive attentional control even in naïve, inexperienced meditators. This is a novel and important finding, suggesting that individuals who are merely initiating a meditation practice may reap benefits after a single brief session."
Study 2 results
Response time: For correct Flanker responses, ANT subjects had quicker RTs than the control group for both congruent and incongruent tasks.
Accuracy: There was no significant difference in accuracy between the ANT group and the control group.
Effect of neuroticism: Study 2 found slightly lower RTs for this personality type with both the control and ANT group.
EEG differences: The authors found no discernible differences in the EEGs between the two groups or for congruent/incongruent trials.
Overall: Subjects in Study 2 had a less rushed experience than those in Study 1, with short breaks, and thus they may have been able to demonstrate “faster correct RTs overall, regardless of trial type, consistent with the conclusion that they were better able to focus and respond (correctly) more quickly than those in the control condition."
Adding it up
“Of primary interest is that a brief meditation period did affect performance in both studies," says the study of the increased RTs seen with meditation, leading them to conclude that while more study of this is warranted—factoring in different mediation/mindfulness methods, for example, or the level of commitment on the part of subjects—“a brief guided meditation may improve executive attention, but the manifestation of that improvement may depend strongly on the task being performed."
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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?
- Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
- Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
- A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses
Dramatic and misleading
Image: Reddit / SICResearch
The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.
Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.
The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.
Let's zoom in:
- It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
- By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
- Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
- In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
- Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
- By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.
Image source: Reddit / SICResearch
This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?
- "The end is near."
- "The idiocracy grows."
- "(It's) like a spreading disease."
- "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
- "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
- "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
- "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
- "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."
Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:
- "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
- "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
- "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
- "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."
"Old people learning to Google"
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)
But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:
- "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
- "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
- "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
- "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."
A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.
The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.
One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.
Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.
It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.
CNN, Fox and MSNBC
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison
For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):
- Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
- MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
- CNN: 706,000 (-9%)
And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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