Meditation and Brain Function
cognition | mood & emotion
As a long-time meditator, Peter Lewis had a suspicion that meditation could improve brain function, so he conducted a self-experiment and enlisted a few other individuals to help test his hypothesis. By using an arithmetic testing application, a timed meditation app, and an ABA research design he found out that there was some support for meditation improving his brain function. However, other participant’s results weren’t as supportive. Watch Peter’s talk, presented at the 2013 Quantified Self Europe Conference, to learn more about his process and hear what he learned by conducting this experiment.
timed meditation app
So I did an experiment to measure the effects of meditation on brain function. Specifically I wanted to see if meditating would make me faster at doing math. And let me say upfront that meditation is a hard thing to study even for professionals. Most studies are done by components of meditation, so there is even more risk of confirmation by us and publications by us and that’s usual. It’s also very hard to blind people and it’s impossible to blind people whether they have meditated. So if you are measuring any effect that is under conscious control people could be just trying harder when they meditate, which is definitely true of my experiment to.
Nobody agrees on quite what it’s supposed to do or how. I don’t know how it’s supposed to help me with math exactly, and it makes it hard to have good control and placeboes.
My amateur reading of existing research is that the best results are for stress reduction, pain and psychology, you know there’s this third way of behavioral psychology and I don’t know if many of you are familiar with, which uses meditation to treat OCD and depression and seems surprisingly successful at that.
Here’s one more recent study that had some positive effects on working memory. Like most studies, and unlike mine this is long term and they were able to test before and after a one-month retreat. It’s hard to separate these different components of brain function even for that study it takes a lot of math and I didn’t know if I could do it.
Now just to define meditation also this is tricky, because all these things involve mindfulness but my definition of mindfulness would just be paying attention to focusing on some element of your present experience and trying to ignore other distracting thoughts.
So this is a 24 days study and I had some other people that did it with me and show their data to and we’ll come back to this in a second. This is the app and most of the problems and not quite this hard and I put some of the hardest ones up there so you can see how bad it gets. The first thing you do is 50 problems and it times you how long it takes to get them all right. And this is surprisingly an addictive app actually because it compares your scores with everybody else in the world at the end of the day. So I’m embarrassed actually how competitive I get with this, and I’ve been using it on and off for a few years. That’s going to be important later because I don’t have any practice at that and other people do.
This guy I used a recorded meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn who is one of the major figures in the way of the third ways of behavioral psychology, totally non-spiritual but also more than just deep breathing. There is some mindfulness component to it.
I didn’t say this before, there is a seven-day control period at the beginning, and there is 10 days of meditation, and then there is another seven-day control period. So each dot up there is a separate trial. So the top graph shows it took me how long to get 50 problems right. And the bottom graph shows how many errors I made. The blue dots are control and the red dots are meditation and you can see in the meditation period my score has dropped a little. And what’s even more encouraging is they trended is down over the 10 days when I stopped meditating, they popped up a little and trended back up.
That’s a little stronger of an effect than I would have expected and it makes me a bit suspicious that I might have been subconsciously trying harder, but anyway you can see a similar thing with the error rate.
Remember, all the other subjects, they only had a few days before they started to practice with the app. So they’re going to be getting a lot better just with practice.
So the other subjects is I look more at is that second gap. Meditation is definitely going to be better than the first gap just by practice. And what I’d like to see is that it bumps up. And you can see in the first two there is a significant bump up when they stopped meditating. So again these are pretty small effects and it’s not a lot of data, and you can see a lot of these people were not doing it as often as I was, but he’s still a pretty encouraging effect.
And these next two seem to show no effect that meditation made to me, and there is a very slight bump there but to me this chart is pretty consistent with meditation having no effect at all in this, and the person is just getting better from practice. Again the errors look a little better in that case.
This one even more so, the scores dropped after meditation a little bit. So it’s totally possible that you know it’s having different effects for different people. Again, you can see this person also didn’t do it as often.
This is the most encouraging one, again out of frequent trials but this is a really big jump that this person stopped meditation. This kind of one makes me wonder if there is a different effects of stopping meditation and is different from the opposite and it’s not just the opposite of starting.
But anyway I saved this one for last because here it shows the opposite effect and he seems to show that meditation makes him worse. You can imagine it would do that, and it’s not so great, but it is a little surprising the one out of these seven of us that showed that effect, but this is pretty much the opposite of my chart.
So, the numbers don’t tell the story as well as the graphs because the trends aren’t there, but they definitely show the massive variance. So this first column is you know meditation versus control. The second column is second control versus meditation.
I also looked at them that maybe if you get closer to meditation, and I looked at only the morning results because everybody was meditating in the morning. Most of these trials were in an hour or two within meditating anyway, but it doesn’t improve the numbers that much.
So, my overall conclusion I would say my results are more positive than I would have thought, and there does seem to be some small effect for me. Where exactly it’s coming from is another story. Now if you were keeping score I think it was four out of six the subject show a positive effect, and one showed a negative effect, so the 3 out of 6 showed a positive effect. I’ve thought it was pretty inconclusive, and everybody felt like it was helping, whether it was or not. I thought it was helping to, which I will come back to in the second.
And then the other question I ask people is how long did the effects seem to last. Most people thought it would last at least an hour or two or three. People were less sure whether it was improving cumulatively over the 10 days. Although, if you remember the graph it was, so it didn’t seem like we had a great handle on what was going on.
Better controls would definitely help, and I realise that if you recruit people for a meditation experiment, you get people that want to meditate and don’t want to be in a control period. They certainly wouldn’t want to be in a control group that doesn’t meditate at all. The compliance of meditation was almost perfect, and the compliance of doing math and the study was a bit less. So if I think I recruit people interested in doing math, and there are no few people who are addicted to that app, and tried to convince them to meditate, then it might work a little better.
The only other thing hard at math, if I asked you five times six and you would remember it and not calculate it. So if I made it a little harder, you know nothing really hard but if I asked you 420 plus 331 you would have to think about a little longer, and I think it might show that effect better.
And one of the things I learned is I want to point out is that just the feeling, the subjective feeling that my mental state had changed after meditating was kind of a motive to keep meditating and that was also something that surprise me. Whether or not I was right or wrong, and even if that was a total placebo effect that made me wonder if there are other and even easier ways to probe your mental state after meditating, to be more aware of how you have change it all that you’ve changed it just as a strictly motivational thing.
And I’m going to try and do this again and fix some of those problems that I talked about, and if anybody is interested or has better suggestions for a better protocol I hope you will get in touch.