Does Meditation Boost Intelligence?

Meditation is rapidly gaining practitioners worldwide. Proponents claim that it helps to clear the mind, improve psychological and emotional well-being, and even to alleviate some health problems. The curiosity surrounding it has led scientists to investigate its real effects on people since the second half of the 20th century. Among other things, the increasing evidence suggests that meditation can change brain structures, improve cognitive reserve, and boost some cognitive abilities associated with intelligence.

Sharpening the mind with mindfulness

meditationclassA notable study by the University of North Carolina, published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition back in 2010, showed that mindfulness meditation practitioners experienced significant improvements in their cognitive abilities. Surprisingly, this was documented after only four days of meditation, 20 minutes each day.

Compared to a control group, the meditation-trained participants fared significantly better on all cognitive tests after the meditative sessions. The trained group also performed better in tasks under stressful conditions.

Taking control over the brain

Furthermore, it has been shown that regular meditation physically alters the brain by promoting neuroplasticity. With the advent of neuroimaging technology, scientists are able to track the exact changes caused by altered states of consciousness to the brain's activity and morphology. According to a 2006 study from the University of Harvard, meditation could promote the growth of gray matter in regions of the brain associated with the regulation of attention and processing of sensory input.

Sarah Lazar, one of the authors of this 2006 study, empirically confirmed this line of thought five years later with the first evidence of changes in brain structure caused by meditation. Working at University of Massachusetts, she and her colleagues found that an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program produced measurable changes in the participants' brains. Brain scans taken before and after the 8-week meditative schedule revealed increased gray matter density in the hippocampus and other regions associated with introspection and self-awareness.

Long-term benefits to the intellect

Other studies have corroborated the above findings and uncovered new data about the neurological effects of meditation. Given that the meditation-affected brain regions are those that tend to thin out with aging, and that the effects of the practice on the brain are cumulative, the neurological footprint of meditation is more apparent in the brains of older people and more experienced practitioners. This suggests that the habit offers intellectual benefits, as well as some protection against the onset of neurological disorders in advanced age.

Regular mindfulness sessions lasting only a few minutes per day could, therefore, yield substantial cognitive rewards over time.