Now, you can add chanting to your brain training regimen.
You hear a lot of strange theories in yoga studios. In my 20 years of practicing yoga I’ve listened to plenty of suspect claims based on intuition rather than verified science, regardless of modern yogis calling the system an “ancient science.” That said, yoga holds up well in certain regards, for pain, flexibility, and stress. Now, you can add to this list the recitation of Sanskrit mantras.
I’ve never been much of an advocate for chanting. I don’t OM when teaching and generally avoid styles like Kundalini that emphasize it. That said, when I have sat for kirtans, the chemistry of oral repetition can be hypnotizing. For my first book I spent many hours with Jeff Kagel (Krishna Das), one of America’s foremost kirtan artists. KD takes a holistic viewpoint on the community aspect of chanting:
"The stresses and lack of communication to the world that people feel, the way they feel cut off from each other, isolated and unhappy, without a lot of options, that leads to a need to connect and get back into yourself somehow. It’s debilitating, it’s crippling, living in the world without any deeper awareness that there’s anything else."
Connectivity is a big part of the sangha (community) created around chanting. But what about neurological effects? This, too, has long been open to mysticism. And so James Hartzell, a Sanskrit devotee and postdoctoral researcher at Spain’s Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language, decided to investigate claims about the efficacy of the “Sanskrit effect.”
During a time when we offload much of our memory to our devices, pockets of practitioners still honor millennia-old mnemonic techniques for memorizing tens and even hundreds of thousands of words. Before communication through writing, ideas and mythologies were expressed with cognitive tricks for memorization, such as rhyming and, in Sanskrit, using an “a” to denote an opposite meaning. For example, vidya means “knowledge” while avidya is “not vidya,” or “ignorance.”
The cognitive effects of meditation have been well-documented. Hartzell had a similar goal. He wanted to know if the thousands of hours of memorization and recitation pandits (Hindu scholars) perform affect the physical structure of their brains.
Morning rituals at the Ramanasramam shrine in India. Young Brahmin boys chant mantras while the head priest performs abhishekam. (Photo: Shutterstock)
He recruited 42 professional Vedic Sanskrit Pandits that had trained for at least a decade beginning in childhood. Their training includes eight to ten daily hours of practice, totaling over 10,000 hours at the entry level. Once that initial phase is over the pandits continue to practice for three hours daily.
After scanning the pandits’ brains with MRI technology, Hartzell’s suspicions were confirmed:
Numerous regions in the brains of the pandits were dramatically larger than those of controls, with over 10 percent more grey matter across both cerebral hemispheres, and substantial increases in cortical thickness. Although the exact cellular underpinnings of gray matter and cortical thickness measures are still under investigation, increases in these metrics consistently correlate with enhanced cognitive function.
Most prominent was the effect on the hippocampus, where we record new information and set it to memory. Hartzell was not surprised that the right hippocampi (we have two), which deals with patterns, was most affected. The right temporal cortex, associated with speech prosody and voice identity, was also substantially thicker.
Hartzell is hoping that this research could lead to more in-depth studies on the effects of cognitive decline and diseases of dementia as the pandits age. Anecdotes are a plenty in the yoga world, but the researcher hopes this one is legitimate:
This raises the possibility that verbal memory “exercising” or training might help elderly people at risk of mild cognitive impairment retard or, even more radically, prevent its onset.
With a pending crisis in dementia looming as we spend more time staring at screens, the cognitive importance of the arts is becoming more apparent. Cognitive benefits of reading and poetry are being studied. In fact, in 2012 the UK overturned nearly 80 years of bad policy by reinstating poetry in its primary English curriculum. Thanks to research from Pew, turns out most Americans are still reading books.
Now we can add chanting to this regimen of cognitive training. Most likely the Sanskrit Effect is a Language Effect, meaning you don’t have to focus on this particular language to accomplish similar feats of memory. How this plays into an easily distracted world will provide insight into how much we value the sustainability of our brains. A sangha is only as strong as its weakest members, and we need everyone sharp and ready.
Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Your mind doesn't run parallel tasks, it has to trade off one focus for another. The good news is that mindfulness meditation can hone your attention span, and reduce stress and anxiety.
By now, everyone knows that mindfulness meditation is good for you—but what's still surprising scientists is just how quickly it works. Ten minutes of meditation won't make you a better mutlitasker—there's no such thing, as psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman explains—but it will make you more adept at switching tasks and returning to a deep level of concentration more quickly after a distraction. Every time you practice meditation, you’re strengthening the neural circuitry for focus and training your brain away from mind-wandering. Beyond the need to concentrate for work, pleasure, or to overcome negative emotion, mindfulness meditation can also help to manage disorders like PTSD, anxiety, and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). This last one particularly has shown incredible results, and Goleman cites one exercise a teacher in a rough neighborhood of New York City practices routinely with their class of seven-year-old kids, over half of which have special needs like ADD and autism. That daily ritual keeps the class environment calm and constructive, and is empowering the children with self-control strategies early on. The scientific research evidence on the benefits of meditation is already compelling, and there are major studies underway, which Goleman expects will reveal many more insights that can be used to instruct creative, educational, and mental health practices. Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson are the authors of Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.
Do you get antsy when there's nothing to do?
Lazy persons of the world, rejoice! You might be brighter than average! A recent study that compared the “need for cognition" and physical activity levels in an individual showed that persons who enjoyed thinking more were less active than those who found thinking to be a burden or dull.
The need for cognition, or NFC, is measured by a simple test that has been in use for decades. Subjects are tested by agreeing or disagreeing with questions such as “I only think as hard as I have to" or “I really enjoy a task that involves coming up with new solutions to problems". People with a high need for cognition will respond in ways affirming that they enjoy thinking. Those with a low score, not so much.
The study took 30 people who had a high or low NFC and measured their daily levels of physical activity. The results showed that those with a higher NFC were significantly less active than those with low NFC, though this difference was less pronounced on weekends when all subjects were more active.
The authors of the study, including Todd McElory of Florida Gulf Coast University, point out that persons with a lower need for cognition also have demonstrated a lower tolerance for boredom in previous studies. This suggests that those persons may look to physical activity as a means for stimulation. Persons with higher need for cognition would not require this distraction as they demonstrated an enjoyment of thinking.
The study only concerned 60 persons who were all college students over the course of a single week, and the results might be more applicable to young adults than to adults in general. The authors of the study noted this when discussing the spike in activity by all subjects on the weekends. So more research is certainly needed before all couch potatoes can claim to be philosophers.
Interestingly, this study found that persons with above-average intelligence tend to be thinner than average, however the findings were purely correlative rather than causal. Like everyone, intelligent people come in all shapes and sizes, no matter their laziness, an important thing to remember considering the health risks of a sedentary lifestyle are considerable and difficult to counter.
So there you have it; the findings are murky but the takeaway is not without value: if you have a high need for cognition you might need to spend a little more time moving. Or at least think about it.
Amy Herman teaches visual intelligence to doctors, intelligence analysts and the NYPD. Here she runs through how to make decisions you can defend under questioning: ones that are perceptive and informed.
Amy Herman created and conducts all sessions of ‘The Art of Perception’, an education program that was initially used to help medical students improve their observation skills. Often in diagnostics, you’re not looking for what you can see, but what you can’t – this is called the 'pertinent negative'. The same goes for investigations, and so the program was adapted for the New York City Police Department, and other intelligence agencies. Really, Herman says, it’s about fine-tuning something we take as a given: our visual intelligence. This refers to the concept that we see more than we can possibly process. What we register is just a fraction of the world around us, so how can we see more? Like any other skill or muscle, to get the most and best use out of it, it needs training.
According to Herman, we need to think more consciously about what we see and deliberately take information in so that we can do our jobs more effectively and live our lives more purposefully. To that end, she runs us through a building block of ‘The Art of Perception’ course: The Four A’s.
Tune into the video above for four practical steps to make more perceptive and informed decisions. Amy Herman is the author of Visual Intelligence:Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life.