Executives at GE, 3M, Bloomberg Media, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and Salesforce.com do it. Google teaches a course in it at Google University. Ford chairman William Ford does it, as do former corporate chiefs Bill George of Medtronic and Bob Shapiro of Monsanto. Phil Jackson and Tiger Woods do it. Oracle chief Larry Ellison does it and asks his executives to do it several times a day. Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre hotels and an author of Peak does it. Thomas Edison did it.
The “it” is meditation. The question of course, is, why? The answer may lie in surprising new research demonstrating that not only does meditation give your brain a mental pause, but it may also give your brain a mental pushup.
The mental pause
Neuroscientists have known for over a decade that our ability to engineer creative breakthroughs hinges on the brain's capacity to synthesize and make connections between seemingly disparate things, and a key ingredient is a quiet and relaxed mind. Research has consistently demonstrated that mental relaxation enables the brain to effectively clear itself and reboot, all the while forming new connections and associations. The result is new and sudden creative insight—those breakthrough moments when after steeping ourselves in a tough problem, the solution comes to us in an "aha" moment, usually when we're doing something other than working on the problem: Sleeping, hiking, driving, taking a shower.
Meditation may be the most powerful tool known to effectively create more of those moments. Since the 1990s, neuroscientists have been studying Buddhist monks to understand how meditation affects brain activity. The most experienced Buddhist practitioners, those with over 10,000 hours of meditation behind them (called "adepts"), exhibit abnormally high levels of gamma brainwaves, which are the brainwaves that immediately precede the Eureka! moment.
According to Bill George, now a Harvard leadership professor and bestselling author, meditation has been an integral part of his career. He meditates twice a day, and during his tenure as Medtronic CEO, designated one of the company's conference rooms for mental breaks, encouraging employees to give meditation a try.
Google has had regular meditation sits since 2006, and in 2007 initiated a mindfulness and meditation course at Google University, encouraging employees to use the practice to increase self-awareness, focus and attention.
The mental push-up
But what's most intriguing is new research from the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging suggesting that people who meditate show more gray matter in certain regions of the brain, show stronger connections between brain regions and show less age-related brain atrophy. In other words, meditation might make your brain bigger, faster and younger.
The researchers used a type of brain imaging known as diffusion tensor imaging, or DTI, which a relatively new imaging mode that provides insights into the structural connectivity of the brain. The study (which appears in the online edition of the journal NeuroImage) consisted of 27 active meditation practitioners (average age 52) and 27 control subjects, who were matched by age and sex. The meditation and the control group each consisted of 11 men and 16 women. The number of years of meditation practice ranged from five to 46.
According to lead researcher Eileen Luders, herself a meditator, "Meditation appears to be a powerful mental exercise with the potential to change the physical structure of the brain at large. Meditation might not only cause changes in brain anatomy by inducing growth but also by preventing reduction. That is, if practiced regularly and over years, meditation may slow down aging-related brain atrophy, perhaps by positively affecting the immune system."
What does all this mean? It means you can relax your brain and exercise it at the same time!
For a quick lesson on how to get started with meditation, read Banish Judgement, Boost Creativity.