So it’s that time of year. Oh yes, it’s the highly anticipated midterm week and, let’s be honest, who isn’t stressed out? Sure, we have all been told that it’s important to relax amid deadlines and tests but how many of us actually do? The thing is, is that we usually hear this from our parents and it really just isn’t enough motivation to actually take time out for ourselves—particularly when there is so much else to be done.
Let me explain why I sometimes I feel like a hypocrite and why this relates. I do mindfulness research with Professor Raag in her lab and we study mindfulness. Being mindful is, essentially, being able to go with the flow and be in tune with yourself. If you are mindful you do not beat yourself up over a bad grade but you also don’t think you’re Einstein when you finish the NY Times Sunday crossword puzzle. In other words, you don’t judge yourself based on the experiences you have. You just accept events and moments as they come and move on. Now, doesn’t that sound like a nice skill to have, especially during exam week? Well, it’s easier said than done. Even I find it very hard to do and I know a lot about its benefits! One way to become more mindful is to practice mindfulness meditation. Now I’ve done this form of meditation a few times and it’s awesome but I can’t help that it’s still hard to get me inspired to do it on any sort of regular basis. But maybe I have finally discovered the incentive I need to change all this…and here’s where the neuroscience comes in. There is new evidence to suggest that practicing mindful meditation leads to increases in regional brain grey matter density! The way I see it is that mindfulness practice is food for our brains.
This evidence comes from a study that came out in January of 2011. Holzel et al. found that mindfulness practice can truly shape and change the composition of your brain. They took 16 healthy participants who were new to mediation and enrolled them in an 8-week program that included mindful yoga and meditation every day. The course was pretty time intensive but was also of a relatively short duration overall. The researchers found an increase in grey matter in the left hippocampus (among other regions), which was expected because it is involved in cortical arousal, responsiveness, and, very importantly, emotional regulation. This suggests that mindfulness practice could lead to improved emotional control. AKA practice mindful meditation and learn how not to freak out. Pretty cool!
So here’s my suggestion for everyone, including myself: let’s all take a few minutes out of our day to regroup, to try meditating for a little, and to remind ourselves that we are most definitely not only as smart as our test grades. I can promise that if we do we’ll be more ready to take on those midterms.