Meditating does more than just feel good and calm you down, it makes you perform better – and alters the structure of your brain, researchers have found.
People who meditate say the practice restores their energy, and some claim they need less sleep as a result. Many studies have reported that the brain works differently during meditation – brainwave patterns change and neuronal firing patterns synchronise. But whether meditation actually brings any of the restorative benefits of sleep has remained largely unexplored.
So Bruce O’Hara and colleagues at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, US, decided to investigate. They used a well-established “psychomotor vigilance task”, which has long been used to quantify the effects of sleepiness on mental acuity. The test involves staring at an LCD screen and pressing a button as soon as an image pops up. Typically, people take 200 to 300 milliseconds to respond, but sleep-deprived people take much longer, and sometimes miss the stimulus altogether.
Ten volunteers were tested before and after 40 minutes of either sleep, meditation, reading or light conversation, with all subjects trying all conditions. The 40-minute nap was known to improve performance (after an hour or so to recover from grogginess). But what astonished the researchers was that meditation was the only intervention that immediately led to superior performance, despite none of the volunteers being experienced at meditation.
“Every single subject showed improvement,” says O’Hara. The improvement was even more dramatic after a night without sleep. But, he admits: “Why it improves performance, we do not know.” The team is now studying experienced meditators, who spend several hours each day in practice.