The death of Muhammad Ali is a somber reminder of what can happen when we take our neurological health for granted. A magical and iconic figure, Ali, the most eloquent of pugilists, was decimated by Parkinson's disease. His condition was certainly influenced by countless head traumas. Other than avoiding repeated blows to the head, are there ways to preserve brain function? Emerging research suggests there absolutely are.
Mindfulness strategies have been shown to protect the brain from aging and can also improve focus, productivity, communication, and memory. Mindfulness is the awareness that results from being in the present moment, on purpose, and without judgment. Science has shown that we are less happy when our minds wander. Nevertheless, it is natural tendency for our minds to stray. Humans are constantly engaged in thoughts of the past or the future, or rushing to arrive at some fantastical moment that "really matters." These innate patterns erode our quality of life and deteriorate our attention, efficiency, and communication.
Mindful meditation is a tool that can help you live your life in real time. Studies also suggest it can protect your brain from the ravages of aging. Individuals who meditate show increased brain volumes in key areas, including the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and temporoparietal lobe. These areas are integral to memory, self-monitoring, empathy, and executive functioning. It has also been shown that meditators in their 50s have brain volumes similar to those approximately 7.5 years younger.
Mindful meditation is easy to learn and involves no religious or spiritual affiliation. The technique is basic. Start out by taking a comfortable seat, and then begin paying attention to the present moment. The breath is perhaps the most accessible place to direct your awareness. Begin by taking a few deep breaths and notice where you feel the breath the most. It might be as the air enters your nose, tickles the back of your throat, or fills your lungs. If it is helpful, place a palm on your abdomen so you can feel it rise and fall. After a few breaths, your mind may start to wander. This is completely natural. When this happens, just bring your attention back to the breath. Start out meditating 5 minutes a day, and increase gradually, about 5 minutes per day each week, until you can sit for 20 minutes.
So what does this all mean for you in the office? When practiced regularly, you will develop the ability to direct your attention in a meaningful way and with less distraction. This will help you complete projects, listen to colleagues, and think critically and strategically. When you embody the moment, you bring your entire self to whatever is occurring. Over time, you will cultivate the important skill of listening to various points of view, and retain meaningful information. You will hone awareness of your own emotions, and learn when to step away from thoughtless reactions.
Mindful meditation is a valuable mental exercise to help regulate, protect, and develop the brain. When practiced regularly, it can make an extraordinary impact on your cognition, performance, and connections with others.