Mindfulness Practice

Today, with the onslaught of push notifications, text messages, and information overload, it can seem impossible to stay focused on just one thing. As plugged-in citizens, anyone can fall victim to “mind-wandering."

If you think your inability to focus or remain in the moment is a never-ending predicament, think again. More importantly perhaps, slow down and take a few calming breaths.

Researchers from the University of California at Santa Barbara may have found a new way to refocus our attention, and it all comes down to mindfulness practice. Not only did two-weeks of mindfulness classes improve the focus of 48 undergraduate students, it also improved their test scores on a modified section of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). No Adderall needed.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a form of mediation that requires focusing on a current sensation or task at hand, such as breathing. When other thoughts intrude, like what’s for lunch, where the car keys are, or disagreements with colleagues or friends, mindfulness can condition your brain to stay focused.

"Some of the biggest misconceptions people have about mindfulness practice is that it is necessarily difficult or foreign," said Dawa Phillips, a visiting research specialist in psychological and brain sciences at UCSB who contributed to the study. "Mindfulness practice, if approached with the right set of tools and instructions can be a gentle and progressive way to strengthen the mind in those faculties we need the most to perform well: flexibility, focus, discernment, and mental ease and fortitude,"

Lead by Michael Mrazek, a graduate student in psychology, a team of researchers randomly divided the pool of 48 students into either a class on mindfulness practice or a class that covered the basics of nutrition. Both classes were taught by professionals in each field, who led four 45-minute classes per week over the course of two weeks.

Before and after these class sessions, each student was given two tests, a modified section of the GRE reading comprehension test and a memory test. In addition to their test scores, researchers asked the students to report how often their minds wandered.

Based on the improved test scores among the mindfulness group versus the relatively flat scores among the nutrition group, a few “oohms” may be a new addition to the test prep arsenal. The mindfulness group saw much more significant improvements in test scores and reported less “mind-wandering.”

More importantly than a bump in testing averages however, this study demonstrates that meditation may be a serious contender for improving cognition and memory capacity. 

"Facts alone can make a mind seem heavy and closed before its time. Mindfulness can keep it sharp, open, inquisitive, pliable and expanding," Phillips said. "Great skills to have throughout ones life and, as shown, a gateway to higher performance."

And improved focus isn’t the only upside researchers have observed during mindfulness studies—there may be physical benefits to mediation as well.

Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison reported that mindfulness meditation could potentially ease the symptoms of chronic inflammation—think arthritis, asthma, and psoriasis. Previously, researchers from the same university found that a combination of exercise and mediation can fight flu and cold symptoms, or at least decrease the number of sick days employees take.

So, while it's not time to ditch the GRE prep books, Mrazek’s research suggests that there may be a newer, healthier study aid: meditation.

How Can I Become More Mindful?

Want to give mindfulness practice a try? Check out these tips:

  • Close your eyes and focus on your breathing for thirty seconds to three minutes.
  • Every time you open your email inbox, close your eyes and count to ten.
  • Focus on a specific object for thirty seconds to three minutes.
  • Focus on picturing a specific, tranquil scene, such as a beach or mountain.
  • Focus on a specific body part and imagine that with each inhale, you are sending breath to that specific area.

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