Mindfulness meditation: boosting young people’s brain power?
Mindfulness meditation: boosting young people’s brain power? – Health & Wellbeing. Published 04/04/2013
It’s not only adults who can benefit from focusing their attention, research suggests mindfulness and meditation are also useful tools for young people.
Feeling less stressed, having better concentration and a greater resilience to life’s challenges are some of the commonly-cited reasons for trying meditation.
But this quest for inner calm is not limited to adults sitting in the lotus position; inside classrooms you’ll find children and young people also quietly focusing their thoughts inwards.
One technique popular with many schools and universities is mindfulness meditation, which involves focusing your attention on the present moment and accepting things for what they are (without judging or reacting to what you feel). This is usually done through exercises where you mentally focus on your breath or feelings in different parts of the body.
But you can also do less formal mindfulness exercises that involve focusing on sensations you feel during daily activities like having a shower or washing the dishes.
Dr Richard Chambers is a clinical psychologist who uses mindfulness-based techniques in his work with young people, including undergraduate university students. He says research shows these techniques can really benefit students and young people.
“There is now a lot of research around mindfulness and performance, mindfulness and leadership, mindfulness and cognitive performance and mindfulness and academic performance.”
In his own research at Monash University, yet to be published, he has taught young people to meditate and then showed them how to draw on these skills to improve their learning and study habits.
“Our findings show that as well as becoming more mindful and less stressed, they become better able to concentrate, their memory improves and their academic performance improves as well.”
Chambers’ claims are backed by a recent US study that found links between mindfulness training and better working memory and improved test scores in undergraduate students.
Mindfulness and mental health
Chambers says regular meditation or mindfulness practice – at any age – can help us to retrain our brains, which leads to changes that last long after we do the mental exercises.
Over time, it helps us become better at preventing our thoughts slipping into a “default mode” of replaying the past, worrying about the future and other negative thoughts, he says. And research has shown it does this by triggering changes in the brain’s structure and function.
“It [meditation] wires the brain to paying attention… Paying attention to being in the present moment and living through direct experience … that becomes hardwired into us. It becomes much easier over time to live like that and that is protective of stress, anxiety and depression.”
Given most mental illnesses emerge in people when they are between the ages of 15 to 24, there’s a growing interest in teaching these preventive skills at an early age.
“More and more, mental illness is being seen as difficulties with emotion regulation. A meditation which helps people to be present – rather than caught up in stories about the past or future or caught up in worries … – it’s going to help people regulate their emotions better and that’s going to help people with mental illness, such as anxiety and depression,” he says.
‘Unlearning’ to pay attention
Getting teenagers and young people to sit quietly and focus on their breathing or other physical sensations might sound as simple as herding cats, but Chambers says this is an ability most of us have naturally at an early age.
“Kids naturally have this tendency, especially when they are quite young, to engage with the world. It can be picking up a leaf and just being really interested in the intricate patterns or veins on the leaf and really paying attention to things,” he says.
In his view, we actually ‘unlearn’ this ability to pay attention and focus on the present moment as we get older.
“We go to school. We start watching a lot of TV and we get caught up in labelling and judging things and we get caught up in our thoughts and our brain.”
But getting your child or teenager to meditate involves more than commanding them to sit cross-legged on the floor. Chambers says it’s best if parents start making meditation part of their own lives and then try to encourage their children to join them.
He admits quiet seated meditation won’t work for all children, especially active ones. “While the actual meditation is very important, if a parent can’t get their child to sit down for five minutes, or even one minute, then do some finger painting, go for a walk outside, hand them a rock and ask them to feel it and describe the rock to you.”
Some other possible activities include:
- Exploring touch – you can try feeling a pine cone, a smooth stone or running sand through your fingers
- Exploring smells – you can try this with food or a flower
- Exploring sound – listening to music, rain on the roof or the ocean
- Exploring taste – you can do this with a piece of fruit or chocolate, or your first mouthful of a meal
- Exploring sight – try looking at art, watching a sunset or looking at the detail of something very small and intricate like a leaf, blade of grass or flower.
“Any time you are engaging with any of the five senses directly … you are practicing mindfulness and being present.”