In 2014 researchers at the University of British Columbia conducted a study on meditation. They were interested in how this practice changes the structure of our brain.
In this study, they compared the brains of people who practice meditation to those of non-practitioners and what they found is fascinating.
By scanning their brains, they noticed that people who meditated regularly had more tissue mass in brain regions that control focus, stress and attention. They had actually managed through practice to develop the part of their brain that controls impulses and maintaining attention.
What this study proves to us is that practicing meditation regularly can literally strengthen our brain.
In this article we will take a closer look at meditation. We will see how meditation improves our concentration, how to meditate and after how long we can see the effects.
How does meditation improve concentration?
To understand how meditation improves our concentration, we must first understand what meditation is.
Most forms of meditation consist of concentrating on a particular element (breath, body, mantra…) and calmly bringing our attention back to this element whenever our mind wanders.
In fact, meditation is a big part of learning not to get distracted. And the more we meditate, the more we are able to channel distractions.
This is confirmed by Catherine Kerr, a researcher at Harvard Medical School. She explains that people who regularly practice meditation are able to adjust their brainwaves to channel distractions and increase productivity more quickly.
By meditating, therefore, we develop new faculties that allow us to ignore distractions more easily.
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The second reason why meditation improves our concentration is because it decreases our stress.
Stress can sometimes be paralyzing. When we’re too stressed, it’s hard to think, our mind easily wanders, and it’s harder to stay focused.
Research has shown that meditation helps reduce our levels of stress and anxiety.
A regular practice of meditation has the power to change the way the following 2 parts of our brain work:
- The medial prefrontal cortex
- The lateral prefrontal cortex
The medial prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain related to introspection. It is the one that interprets our emotions and experiences, the one that makes us consider an experience as good or bad and it is also the one that is concerned about the future and what others think. This part of the brain is also called the Me Center.
The lateral prefrontal cortex allows us to look at things from a more rational and logical point of view. It is what modulates our emotional responses and it is what influences how our medial prefrontal cortex acts. It is also called the Assessment Center.
In people who do not meditate, the connection between the Me Center and the Assessment Center is fragile. What this means is that these people are more at the mercy of their Me Center. They will therefore more easily allow emotions to overwhelm them and will be more likely to be stressed or anxious.
People who meditate, on the other hand, strengthen the connection between their Me Center and their Assessment Center. In other words, they find it easier to control their emotional response. They are therefore less stressed and anxious, which allows them to stay focused even in usually stressful situations.
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How to meditate to improve your concentration
There are many ways to meditate. Here we will see how to meditate with our breath:
Step 1: Find a quiet place. It can be in your living room, in your bedroom, in your garden or even in nature.
Step 2: Make yourself comfortable. You can cross-legged if you feel comfortable in this position, you can also sit on a chair or an armchair, your back straight, your feet touching the ground and your hands resting on your thighs.
Step 3: Take a first deep breath in through your nose and exhale through your mouth.
Step 4: Breathe normally and focus on your breath. Observe the movements of your body with each breath. Feel the air entering your nostrils and inflating your lungs with each inhale and feel the air coming out with each exhale. Let yourself be carried away by this rhythm.
When you focus on your breathing, thoughts will naturally arise in your mind. Observe them without judging them and systematically bring your attention back to your breath.
Sometimes these thoughts will take you for several minutes and you will even forget your breath. Don’t blame yourself. Again when you notice this happening, calmly refocus on your breathing. This is arguably the most important part of meditation.
We often think that to meditate we must stay focused as long as possible and that we must not think of anything. We believe that if we get carried away by our thoughts, it is because we do not know how to meditate. It’s wrong.
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All people who meditate (including those who have been practicing for years) see distracting thoughts arise at one time or another. The practice of meditation consists precisely in learning to welcome these thoughts and then to bring our attention back to our breath.
This is how we train our brains.
When you go to the gym to build muscle and do exercises with dumbbells, you raise them and then lower them. It is this up and down movement that muscles you.
When you meditate it’s the same thing except that instead of raising and lowering the dumbbells, you focus on your breath then when your attention goes elsewhere, you refocus on it. It is this “movement of concentration, reconcentration that muscles your mind.
So the next time you meditate and observe distracting thoughts during your practice, don’t blame yourself. Be grateful that they are there and tell yourself that they are helping you to strengthen your concentration.
when to meditate
“We are what we do repeatedly”
Regularity is very important in meditation. If you want to improve your concentration quickly and sustainably, you need to meditate every day.
The more you meditate, the more you will strengthen your concentration.
It’s a bit like sculpting your brain, as Antoine Lutz, researcher at the CRNL, explains:
“[…] meditation causes functional changes in the brain. […] It induces a reorganization of neuronal activity. […] The regular practice of meditation thus has a physiological effect on the brain: this results in the activation of certain areas that control our attention, our emotions, our presence in the world and to others”
This means that people who have practiced meditation regularly for several years have a different brain structure. Their neural activity allows them to focus deeper and faster than someone who has never meditated.
The good news is that you don’t have to wait years to feel the benefits of meditation. If you meditate 5-10 min every day, you will already see that after a week you will be able to concentrate better.
And over time you will be able to concentrate for longer periods of time.
Now if you’re wondering what is the optimal time of day to meditate, there really is no rule, it’s up to your preference.
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Some will say that it is better to meditate when you wake up, others in the evening. Do as you prefer. The most important thing is not so much the time of day during which you meditate but rather the regularity with which you meditate. It is better to meditate 5 min every day rather than 30 min once a week.
To conclude, meditation remains the most powerful tool to improve your concentration. Anti-distraction tools and apps can help you stay focused, but ultimately there’s nothing more effective than meditation. 5 – 10 min a day is enough to see the effects.