Meditation, Mindfulness and “Untraining” the Brain.

ScienceBlogs has (have?) a piece on an interesting study about ways to make your thinking less hidebound and more creative:

Yet relatively few studies focus on whether thought and behavior can be de-automatized – or, as I might call it if I were asking for trouble, deprogrammed.

What would count as deprogramming? For example, consider the Stroop task, where subjects must name the ink color of each word in a list of color words (e.g., “red” might be written in blue ink, and the task is to say “blue” while suppressing the urge to automatically read the word “red”). Reaction time is reliably increased when subjects name the ink color of incongruent words (“red” written in blue ink) relative to congruent words (“red” written in red ink), presumably because the subjects need to inhibit their prepotent tendency to read the words. But is it possible to regain control over our automatized processes – in this case, reading …?

Those subjects who underwent training met with instructors for 30 minutes each week, and were instructed to train 20 minutes twice daily for 2 months. Transcendental meditation (TM) required the use of a mantra, and other specific techniques, as described in Maharaishi (1969, cited by Alexander et al., 1989). Mindfulness training (MF) involved a structured word generation exercise, in which subjects must think of a word, then think of another word beginning with the last letter of the previous word, and then repeat this process throughout training without ever repeating a word. Subsequently subjects were afterwards simply asked to generate words belonging to specific categories, and then undergo a fairly generic “creative thinking” exercise (think of novel uses for various objects, but don’t daydream). Mental relaxation simply involved focusing on a pleasant or relaxing thought.

Various statistical procedures were also used to equate instructor effectiveness, subjects’ expectancy of benefits, or regularity of practice; the study was double-blind, in that the instructors and the subjects were unaware of the hypotheses being tested. After training, subjects were tested on a variety of cognitive and personality tests, including associate learning, word fluency, depression, anxiety, locus of control, and of course Stroop. Results showed that the TM and MF groups together scored significantly higher on associate learning and word fluency than the no-training and relaxation-training groups. Perhaps most surprisingly, over a 36 month period, the survival rate for the TM and MF groups was significantly higher than for the relaxation and no-training groups (p< .00025). But more to the point, both TM and MF scored higher than MR and no-training on the Stroop task (p<.1; one-tailed test).

So, 1. meditation and mindfulness training both increase a kind of mental efficiency, which is good to know, and 2. here’s a scientist citing the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, which is sort of awesome.

The end of the piece is even more fascinating, showing that strong suggestions – either hypnotic or fake-hypnotic – are even more effective at unleashing the mind.

Quick, someone, tell me what to do!