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How Meditation Might Help Break the Cycle of Poverty

Practice

In our July issue we reported on studies by Martha Farah, director for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, demonstrating that children raised in poverty tend to be able to hold fewer items in their working memory than middle-class children. Dr. Farah and colleagues then went on to discover that the reason for this deficit in working memory is stress. These findings are enormously important because they help explain how poverty can be passed from generation to generation. A person with a diminished working memory will not learn as fast or as well, potentially leaving the poor at a permanent disadvantage.

Now, a seemingly unrelated study on advanced meditators by psychologist Maria Kozhevnikov of George Mason University suggests a possible antidote for the brain deficits created by poverty. The team of researchers were investigating the effects of different styles of Buddhist meditation on visuospatial skills and discovered ways that working memory can be improved.

As the researchers reported in Psychological Science, when we see something, it is kept in our visual short-term memory for only a matter of seconds. However, there have been reports of Buddhist monks who are able to maintain complex images in their visual short-term memory for minutes — sometimes even hours.

The researchers focused on two styles of meditation: deity yoga (DY) and open presence (OP). During DY meditation, the practitioner focuses intently on an image of a deity and his or her entourage. This requires coming up with an immensely detailed, three-dimensional image of the deity and also focusing on the deity’s emotions and environment. In contrast, practitioners of OP meditation attempt to evenly distribute their attention while meditating, without dwelling on or analyzing any experiences, images, or thoughts that might arise.

In these experiments, experienced DY or OP meditation practitioners, along with non-meditators, participated in two types of visuospatial tasks: being able to mentally rotate a 3-D structure and upon being shown an image, retaining it in memory, and then identifying it among a number of other, related images. In the first round, all of the participants completed the tasks. Before the second round, the meditators meditated for 20 minutes, while others rested or performed non-meditative activities. All the participants completed a second round of the tasks.

The results revealed that all of the participants performed similarly on the initial set of tests, suggesting that meditation does not result in an overall, long-lasting improvement of visuospatial abilities. However, following the meditation period, practitioners of the DY style of meditation showed a dramatic improvement on both the mental rotation task and the visual memory task, as compared to OP practitioners and controls. These results indicate that DY meditation allows practitioners to access greater levels of visuospatial memory resources.

While many studies have shown that meditation is an antidote to stress — and may, therefore, help protect developing young minds from poverty — this study suggests that working memory is improved by specific kinds of meditation. With the right meditation, kids may become calmer and smarter at the same time.


Stephen Kiesling is a former Olympic rower, cocreator of the Nike Cross Training System, and editor at large of Spirituality & Health. A 35th anniversary edition of The Shell Game: Reflections on Rowing and the Pursuit of Excellence has just been published.


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