Whenever I meet people that regularly meditate, I find two things; they are generally pleasant, and often wiser. So I started to wonder: does meditation make you smarter, or is it just that smarter people meditate?
Studies have shown that regular meditation practice can increase intelligence across several different measures of intelligence. Meditation affects brain size, emotional intelligence, and reactiveness, and decreases brain aging.
I wish someone had told me about this several months before I’d taken my university exams.
For the last few decades, neuroscientists, psychologists, and mindfulness practice experts studied the short and long-term effects of meditation to see whether meditation practice helps with cognitive performance or just makes you more efficient. And they’ve discovered the answers are yes, and yes.
You are what you eat
I had an interesting conversation with an eleven-year-old relative who found me meditating and continued to interrogate me with an infinite string of “Whys?” to understand why uncle Eddie was sitting on a cushion cross-legged with his eyes closed.
I used the analogy that “those men and women who have big muscles”, are muscular because they eat good food and exercise their muscles regularly, and that to do the same for the brain meant sitting on a cushion and closing your eyes.
Following a short 10-minute guided meditation, he told me he liked it, and after a high-five, returned to his parents.
What was interesting was that I realized a different way of thinking about how meditation can make you smarter. In the same way, lifting weights results in hypertrophy and muscle growth, regular meditation practice changes the brain function with neuroplasticity.
What is neuroplasticity
Every time you have a thought, say something, or do something, your brain starts firing synapses. The brain is a very efficient system that tries to focus its resources on all the things that you do often.
It’s how we learn things and why people often talk about ‘muscle memory‘. So the more you repeat something, the brain physically changes to make those connections quicker and easier. That in simple terms is neuroplasticity.
One of the benefits of meditation is that it rewires the brain using neuroplasticity which has several benefits.
The 7 ways meditation makes you smarter
1: Silence the monkey:
The “monkey mind”, or the part of our brain that automatically reacts to threats, has had a lot of bad press lately. It’s to protect us, and the ones we love when things get dangerous. But if we are in a continual state of worry, our brains actually change to be more efficient at worrying…which is worrying. Continued worry can lead to anxiety and depression.
In a 2017 study, the researchers looked at using 10 minutes of regular meditation practice and how it reduced worry and stress levels in the participants. The subjects were less reactive to their thoughts and generally felt like they were more in control.
2: Slows aging of the brain
In a famous study of Buddhist monk Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, they found that regular deep meditation could slow the aging of the brain by eight years. Not only does this mean a more efficient and effective brain, but it also means more resistance to age-related mental health problems such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
3: Increases brain size
There have been lots of studies that show that with regular meditation, meditators have an increase in brain density, especially the prefrontal cortex, which deals with thought. It was previously thought that eight weeks of mindfulness meditation could affect the density of the gray matter, but a recent study has found that eight weeks isn’t enough. So keep practicing.
4: Balances the mind
Everyone has a tendency to use one area of the brain, and because of our good old friend neuroplasticity, the areas we use most grow stronger, and the areas we don’t grow weaker. A 2014 study showed that with regular meditation, you balance out both hemispheres.
5: Improves intuition and awareness
There is a lot of research that talks about how meditation can boost awareness, and now there are growing discussions about how it can also improve intuition. Intuition is normally portrayed as some form of magical superpower and awareness of things to come. But intuition is just the ability to be better aware of our surroundings and make better decisions based on that information. Deep meditation can help cultivate this awareness.
6: Improves memory
Meditation helps your memory in two ways. Being more aware and present in everyday life helps you to notice and observe things you need to remember better. Non-meditators are more likely to forget things as they spend a large amount of time on autopilot.
The second reason related to point 3 is that meditation increases the brain regions responsible for memory. Brain research has shown that the thickness of the hippocampus increases following regular meditation, the part of the brain that deals with learning and memory.
7: Improves emotional intelligence (EQ)
Knowing how you truly feel is surprisingly difficult. I remember when I first started meditating how surprised (and distracted) I was by the number of thoughts about how I was feeling kept surfacing.
Emotional intelligence is simply being better aware of how you feel, and understanding why you feel a certain way. As you turn your attention inwards with each meditation, you develop your emotional intelligence by firstly being truly aware of your emotions and understanding why you feel that way.
Regular meditators are generally better in both intimate and professional relationships as they have better self-awareness of their emotions and are able to empathize more.
Research shows that as well as physical health benefits, the regular practice of meditation has a positive impact on the physical regions of our brains that are related to intelligence. Regular meditators are generally more aware, understanding, and less easily distracted which all account for a smarter individual.
Why not check out these mindfulness books to make you even smarter?