Can Meditation Enhance Memory?
By Zahra Piyar Ali 11C
Courtesy Zahra Piyar Ali 11C
"Trickle-Down Research," Spring 2011
Can meditation enhance memory?
It’s a question I am passionately, even desperately, interested in answering. How exactly did I come up with this research question? Formulating such a question is, in my eyes, the hardest task in beginning research at Emory University. In the ORDER class, I was asked, “What is it exactly that has caught your attention to such an extent that you will not rest until you find the answer?” For me, the question, “Can meditation enhance memory?” sparked passion and interest.
In black-and-white terms, I simply connected some dots from various articles that I read. Memory is associated with the hippocampus, a structure that is part of the limbic system and is located in the medial temporal lobe of the brain. The hippocampus is responsible for consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory. It has been noted that the hippocampus of taxi drivers, individuals who use their memorized map of the city routes to find shortcuts on a daily basis, is larger than that of most others. Furthermore, because of their daily activities, taxi drivers have greater grey matter density in their brains than other people. Grey matter density has also been noted to increase due to meditation, the process of training one’s mind to induce a mode of consciousness.
In other words, meditation can lead to neuroplasticity, or physical changes of the brain due to experience. This was established by an experiment conducted at the University of Toronto by Emory’s Helen Mayberg. This work supports the idea that meditation can lead to density of certain parts of the brain, specifically the grey matter of the brain. In the experiment, depressed patients were separated into two groups, one that received an antidepressant drug and another group that received cognitive therapy. All the patients’ depression lifted, regardless of whether they received the antidepressant drug or cognitive therapy. Brain scans revealed that the antidepressant drug degreased activity in the limbic system and increased activity in the frontal cortex, the seat of reasoning, logic, and analysis and higher thought. The cognitive therapy did the opposite. It increased activity in the limbic system. The fact that the hippocampus is part of the limbic system means that cognitive therapy has some influence on the hippocampus. Meditation, which is a cognitive therapy process, can be indirectly associated with influencing activity of the limbic system. So can meditation lead to increase of activity in the hippocampus?
The aim of my experiment is to evaluate the relationship between meditation and the changes it brings to the volume, density, or structure of the hippocampus. Meditation, in my eyes, has been a mysterious phenomenon that has various healing powers. It is a cheap and easily learned cure to many illnesses. I plan to design my experiment for my research using memory tests. These memory tests will be taken under stressful conditions as well as stress-free conditions. For example, asking a group of people to memorize twenty simple unrelated words, and then a few hours later asking them to write down these words under two different conditions. The first time they will be required to write down these words from memory with a time constraint placed on them while the second time they will be asked to do the same without a time constraint. Results from these simple memory tests can show a correlation between memory and the state of mind. During meditation the mind is a in a relaxed state, and therefore the results from the test without a time constraint can be considered a test of the brain’s ability to recall information in a meditative state. This would be the beginning of my experiment, followed by several memory tests and examinations of the brain under meditation that can lead me to investigate a connection between meditation and memory, if any at all.
I initially became interested in my research topic when I read the article about meditation and neuroplasticity. Dr. Mayberg’s experiment suggests that meditation increases grey matter and activity in the limbic system. And based on another article, I know the hippocampus is part of the limbic system and is responsible for memory. Alzheimer’s is caused by atrophy or break down of the hippocampus. If meditation increases hippocampus activity, it can enhance memory, which means that it can help Alzheimer’s and dementia. Making this connection after reading one article after another, I arrived at my research question.
Emory has a department that investigates the different effects of meditation on the human brain. This is a great platform that I intend on taking the full advantage of to jump-start my own study. All there is left to do is submit my grant proposal and convince the committee at Emory that my research can bring an earthquake-like-change to the medical world, and therefore should be funded. Then I can perform my experiments and, if my research yields the results I expect, which is that meditation can lead to increase in hippocampus activity, density, or structure, then this can be a stepping-stone towards the cure of memory related disorders such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.