Meditation for a new you in the new year
ASU neuroscientist says good meditation can improve cognitive performance and reduce stress
New year, new you.
But what’s the best way to approach the new you?
Arizona State University neuroscientist says it’s meditation.
But not just any genre.
Yi-Yuan Tang has been studying the brain for over 30 years. He says that after just five to ten sessions of meditation, your brain can change for the better, providing a host of benefits.
When Tang started his career 30 years ago in medical school, the emphasis was on the Western approach to medicine: drugs and surgery.
“But it doesn’t always work for sure,” said Tang, a professor at the College of Health Solutions. “Then I discovered another important factor that we ignore: the psychological contribution to health and disease. So this time, I studied psychosomatic medicine. I have discovered many psychological factors that contribute to health and illness. So I had a question: can we help the patient with this kind of approach?
When Tang was six years old, he had a serious accident. He fell from a third floor, breaking his legs and feet. They got infected. Doctors at the hospital couldn’t cure him and gave up. Her father, a teacher, found a doctor of traditional medicine who cured Tang. This doctor became one of Tang’s first teachers.
Tang then learned different body-mind methods and techniques from over 20 teachers. He has long practiced many Eastern traditions, including traditional Chinese medicine, meditation, tai chi, martial arts, and I Ching.
Tang has also studied health, disease, psychology, and neuroscience, and has developed an approach he calls integrative mind-body training. It focuses on the body part of physical health and, to a lesser extent, mental health.
“Our brains can predict our health,” he said.
Tang studied the effects of integrative mind-body training on a population of 10,000 people. They improved their emotions, attention and creativity, and also reduced stress and improved other functions.
So what happens to the brain after the five to ten sessions of meditation?
“Five sessions can improve brain activity in an area of stress, area of emotion, area of reward, and area of self-control, typically in the middle of our brain,” he said. “After 10 sessions, we notice that this area is getting bigger. The emotional reward is greater.
It’s not exercise, Tang said. It is calm and peaceful. It is an experience that changes and shapes the brain.
“Participants have better cognitive performance, such as attention, memory, creativity, problem solving,” he said. “The stress is lower and the immunity is higher.”
If immune function can be improved for middle-aged and elderly people, the quality of life can be improved and stress reduced.
“We can prevent… early chronic decline and aging-related disorders,” he said.
What type of meditation is the best?
He recommends brain and body based practices like mindfulness meditation, tai chi, yoga, and qigong.
At the heart of his work is embodied cognition theory, the idea that many characteristics of cognition, whether human or otherwise, are shaped by aspects of the entire body of the organism.
“It means how your body can work with your brain… to change our state,” he said.
Tang is the author of nine books, such as “The Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation: How the Body and Mind Work Together to Change Our Behavior” (Springer Nature, 2017), “Brain-Based Learning and Education: Principle and Practice” ( Academic Press, Elsevier, 2018) and “The Neuroscience of Meditation: Understanding Individual Differences” (Academic Press, Elsevier, 2020).
Top image: Professor Yi-Yuan Tang from the College of Health Solutions. Tang’s research focuses on the brain and how it evolves and changes with mindfulness practices. Photo by Deanna Dent / ASU News