While I hope I have always been polite about it, I’ve never had much time for things like mindfulness or meditation. They ring of new age phooey, embraced by enthusiastic zealots who dismiss the very idea of any evidence beyond their own beliefs. Courses in these subjects have always seemed at best harmless, at worst a tax on the gullible.
Well, I got that one wrong. A recent review by a group of neuroscientists from Canada, Germany and the USA brought together the findings of research into the impact of meditation and mindfulness classes on the adult brain, with impressive results. For anyone concerned with lifelong learning, their findings are consistent with the view that our brain is not fully formed at the end of adolescence, followed by a long phase of dreary decline, but continues to change during adult life.
One of the studies reviewed compared people who had taken an eight-week mindfulness stress reduction class with a control group who had applied for the class and gone onto the waiting list. Longitudinal scans of their brains showed that course participation was associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.
Other studies reviewed consistently showed that meditation caused changes in the brain regions concerned with memory consolidation, meta-awareness, and self and emotion regulation. While the evidence was less abundant, the researchers concluded that there were gounds for believing that meditation interventions can also offset age-related cognitive decline.
This research is potentially of huge importance for our understanding of lifelong learning. Earlier studies, such as the well-known case of London taxi drivers, have already shown that the adult brain is plastic – that is, it continues to change throughout the life course. The mindfulness research not only confirms this, but shows that what is true for the right hippocampus in taxi drivers is also true for other parts of the brain; and that planned interventions can cause brain change.
While the importance for lifelong learning is clear, what this means in practice is far from simple. There is a good news story here about resilience and the avoidance of cognitive decline, which is of obvious significance for policy-makers and employers, who might otherwise be as sceptical about the value of these interventions as I was. It might also be useful for the public, particularly older adults, to understand why they need to exercise their minds as much as any other muscle. But what none of this tells us, at least so far, is what to teach and how best to teach it.