How meditation impacts the way we learn

Many anecdotes and some studies suggest that meditation can be a powerful tool for mental and physical health. New research shows that it may have yet another benefit: to help us learn faster from past experiences.

According to new findings, meditation alters the way in which we learn.

In a new study, researchers from the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom focused on one particular type of meditation — “focused attention meditation” — and whether it affects how a person learns.

This meditation practice requires a person to focus their attention on a particular object — a burning candle or one’s own breath, for instance — and maintain that focus for a period of time.

People often use focused attention meditation as a gateway into other types of meditation, as it is easier to learn and to practice.

“Meditation is a powerful tool for the body and the mind; it can reduce stress and improve immune function,” says study co-author Prof. Bertram Opitz.

But can it also help us train our minds to learn faster from feedback or information acquired through past experiences?

Prof. Opitz and Paul Knytl, who is a doctoral student at the University of Surrey, suggest that the answer to that question is “yes.”

The two explain their research findings in a paper now featured in the Journal of Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience.

Learning from positive vs. negative feedback

The researchers worked with people who were meditators and people who did not meditate. There were 35 participants in total, of which nine identified as Buddhist meditators, 12 practiced meditation in a secular context, two practiced Qi Gong, and the rest non-meditators.

For the purpose of this study, the investigators trained the participants to do well in an activity in which they had to select images that were most likely to bring them a particular reward.

In this exercise, the participants saw pairs of images, each with different probabilities of bringing a reward if selected.

The researchers noticed that those who practiced meditation had a higher success rate in choosing reward-associated images compared with their non-meditating peers.

This, Prof. Opitz and Knytl explain, suggests that meditators tend to learn from positive outcomes, while non-meditators most likely learn from negative outcomes.

“Humans have been meditating for over 2,000 years, but the neural mechanisms of this practice are still relatively unknown,” says Knytl, who is specializing in the neurological mechanisms associated with focused attention meditation.

“[Our current] findings demonstrate that, on a deep level, meditators respond to feedback in a more even-handed way than non-meditators, which may help to explain some of the psychological benefits they experience from the practice,” he adds.

Meditation’s effect on the brain

In the new study, the team also measured the participants’ brain activity during their tasks by using electroencephalograms (EEGs), a method that records the electrical activity in a person’s brain.

The EEGs showed that while all the participants responded in the same way to positive feedback during the exercise, those who did not meditate had a more intense response to negative feedback than meditators.

Among participants who meditated, those with the weakest response to negative feedback were the most experienced practitioners.

Knytl and Prof. Opitz believe that regular meditation may impact levels of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in mood regulation and physical agility, among other things. This, in turn, may render meditators less responsive to negative feedback.

The scientists also note that previous research has found that people with Parkinson’s disease — who have much lower levels of dopamine than normal — tended not to perform well on learning tasks that required them to respond to positive feedback.

“What we have found is that [meditation] can […] impact on how we receive feedback, i.e. if we quickly learn from our mistakes or if we need to keep making them before we find the right answer.”

Prof. Bertram Opitz

“If it is the latter [then] this can impact how individuals perform in the workplace or classroom. Such individuals may benefit from meditation to increase their productivity or prevent them from falling behind in their studies,” Prof. Opitz suggests.

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