Updated: Aug 2
Can meditation improve memory is a question I get asked more times than I care to remember. Numerous studies have shown that meditation is one of the methods that can dramatically improve short term memory in people of all ages. Meditation for memory loss is a huge growth area as the multi-faceted benefits of meditation, and mindfulness meditation in particular, dominate public consciousness in the wellbeing world.
A study from 2009 shows that meditation can increase the amount of grey matter in the brain. This is the stuff that helps humans’ function normally. It can be found in the central nervous system and the outer most layer of the brain. This outermost layer, the cerebral cortex, is responsible for, amongst other things, memory, learning, attention, and cognitive processes. The meditation benefits for brain activity are numerous. Having more grey matter has a direct impact on our ability to remember as well as learning, attention span and numerous other cognitive benefits.
Why Mindfulness Meditation?
Mindfulness meditation is all about awareness in the present moment, without judgement. Understanding where you mind is now and having the ability to notice when it wanders off and pull it back again to the initial focus can, for instance, be a lifesaver in social situations. It’s all about helping us make sense of what is happening to us and around us. Life can come hurtling at us fast sometimes and at these times, it is easy to fall into simply replaying our habitual responses in a mindless fashion. Through the practice of mindfulness, it's possible to become detached from our instinctive responses and take the time to review how we might react and what choices we might make. In this mode we become thoughtful observers of our lives.
Meditation for memory loss can also offset the risk factors that lead to the development of dementia or Alzheimer’s because it helps to build, restore, and strengthen neural pathways. As we develop the ability to be more mindful, taking stock of life as it happens, we start to build new neural pathways. Essentially, we are doing brain surgery on ourselves. As many brain scans have shown, the practice of mindfulness physically alters the structure of the brain.
What causes memory loss?
There are many factors that can contribute to the loss of memory. Our daily habits, illnesses and diseases, age, genetics, environmental factors, and family history to name but a few. For senior citizens, the onset of Alzheimer’s or dementia are significant concerns.
The development of Alzheimer’s is due to the build-up of beta-amyloid and tau proteins in the brain which eventually leads to the destruction of brain cells. When brain cells die it affects the brain’s ability to communicate with itself and diminishes information processing. As communication weakens and disappears, certain regions of the brain shrink.
According to a study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, meditation can help to prevent mild cognitive impairment (MCI) from developing. MCI can easily give way to full-blow Alzheimer’s.
There are several types of dementia, Alzheimer’s being one well known form. Some types can be less severe with treatments available, and some can even be temporary. Dementia can be caused by many factors, such as depression and stress related issues, chronic anxiety, the side-effects of medication, certain vitamin deficiencies, thyroid issues, multiple sclerosis, and an excessive intake of alcohol.
Meditation to Improve Memory
A study in Neuroscience Letters showed that meditating for as little as 15 minutes a day, can significantly impact on the progression of cognitive impairment. In the study, a group of adults between the ages of 55 and 90 were taken through an eight-week mindfulness programme. At the end of the study period, MRIs showed a significant slowing of the deterioration of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory that shrinks with dementia. The study group also showed a general improvement in cognitive abilities as well as an overall sense of wellbeing.
Although further research is needed to establish just how much meditation is required to slow the progression of dementia, it’s clear that a daily practice of mindfulness can help to reduce the normal stresses of life resulting in an overall improvement in the wellbeing. Regular practice can lead to an ability to control the mind from wandering and dealing with uncomfortable emotions and can cultivate the capacity of feeling kindness and goodwill towards oneself and others.
Mindfulness meditation is not limited to simply sitting quietly with your own mind. Indeed, the prospect of doing so might even cause stress for some people, one of the factors that can lead to dementia. A good mindfulness practice could involve walking in nature, taking up some form of physical exercise such as yoga or Qi Gong, deep breathing, or mindful eating. Both yoga and Qi Gong are moving mindfulness practices. It’s even possible to just stand and meditate.
One of the biggest misconceptions about meditation is that it involves stopping your mind from thinking. This is impossible, at least for us normal human beings. Meditation is in fact about noticing when thoughts arise and then bringing your focus back to the object of the meditation. That could be your breath, your body, your surroundings, sounds that you can hear, physical sensations, or indeed, the arising of thoughts themselves. When thoughts arise, we try to cultivate the ability to simply notice them without getting pulled into them.
The best time to meditate is whatever works best for you. There is no special time. For some, morning might be best, or the evening or the middle of the day. The most important aspect of establishing your own meditation time is to try to make it a part of your normal daily routine, and don’t think you have to sit like a monk for hours on end. A short practice of a few minutes is fine. You can always increase this as time goes by if you wish.
How to Meditate
1/ Establish your meditation time and sit comfortably. Try to sit in manner that makes you feel alert and dignified. Slouched in an armchair is not the best posture. Meditation isn’t about simply relaxing; we are trying to develop our ability to focus. If you want to try meditating in nature, this is fine too.
2/ Start with a short period of time, let’s say 10 minutes max. Now take a few slightly deeper breaths than normal and try to let all the tension go out of your body. It’s best to do this on an outbreath. It’s usually a good idea to check in with your shoulders as we often store tension here.
3/ You might want to bring your awareness to how your whole body feels. Just scan through your body, from the top of your head to the tips of your toes, noticing any aches, pains, or irritations. You’re not going to do anything with these sensations, just notice their presence.
4/ Now we need a focus for the meditation. Classically, this could involve simply resting your awareness on your breath. Or you might like to bring your awareness to all the sounds around you. If this is so, try to imagine that your ears work like microphones. They simply pick up whatever sounds are there, without searching out sounds or focusing in on one as opposed to another. Unpleasant sounds as well as pleasant ones are just as valuable in a meditation practice. We are simply being aware of what is there.
You could try walking meditation and bringing your awareness to the movement of the legs, the pressure and sensations as you place your foot on the floor, the movement of your arms, and how this affects your breathing. If doing a standing meditation, then simply try scanning down through your body, again from the top of your head to the tips of your toes, just noticing how your body feels, its weight, noticing the pressure on the floor, getting a keen sense of your balance and again being aware of any aches or pains or other sensations around your body.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness and it’s a good idea to do some research into what might serve you best. Guided meditations for memory are also excellent. This is where you listen to someone else talking you through the steps of the meditation. Some people find this helps them to stay on track and reduces the chances of their mind wandering off.
Memory loss, especially as we age, is not an inevitability. Science is proving repeatedly that meditation can positively impact our lives in many ways, one of them being on our ability to recall the past and to slow down the onset of age-related memory loss.
If you would like to explore the science behind mindfulness a little further, here is an informative video:
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