Whether you’re young or old, healthy or sick, spending just 20 minutes a day in meditation can improve your ability to perform on a wide range of mental performance tests. And it can happen really quickly.
“People who meditate for 20 minutes a day for just four consecutive days do better on cognitive tasks,” says Mladen Golubic, M.D., Ph.D., medical director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Lifestyle Medicine. “When you ask someone to sit quietly for 20 minutes, to focus on breathing, or repeat a word, or observe each part of his or her body, the exercise helps improve cognitive ability, regardless of how you test it.”
The benefits continue to grow with time. After just eight weeks of regular meditating, there are visible changes in the physical structure of the brain. The left hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with memory, gets bigger, and thicker. In contrast, chronic stress shrinks the hippocampus, which can lead to mild cognitive impairment. One small pilot study at Harvard found that older adults with mild cognitive impairment who were trained to meditate two hours per week did better on cognition tests, says Dr. Golubic. While it’s a small study that needs to be repeated, other research has found in healthy adults that just six weeks of meditation helps people to develop more mental flexibility in their thinking. This helps them to become better at solving problems. “Meditating helps people to see the solution to the problem,” says Dr. Golubic. “In Zen Buddhism this idea is called ‘beginner’s mind’; everything is fresh and new.”
It takes just eight weeks for people who meditate to experience less fatigue and anxiety, and more positive moods. Working with patients, Dr. Golubic sees even quicker results. “Around week three, they tell me, ‘I’m sleeping better, I have more energy and I’m not so tired.’”
One of the most profound benefits is the improved ability to regulate emotions. “People get better at accepting how they feel,” he says. “They don’t ruminate as much as they did before. Some researchers believe that this emotional acceptance is what allows meditators to do better on cognitive tests.” Dr. Golubic says that by accepting your emotions as they are, you will improve executive function (your ability to perform everyday tasks that require planning, organizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and time management.) Written by Robert Barnett — a health journalist who writes frequently about nutrition, psychology, fitness, and medicine.