An increasingly popular research subject in the fields of psychology, personality and neurobiology is how meditation practice affects brain structure. A new study shows once again that practicing mindfulness grows neurons, adds to the network of connections in the brain and strengthens signal transmission across synapses.
The most recent, a Mass General Hospital study, documents that 8 weeks practice of mindfulness meditation produces lasting changes in brain structure.
Participants spent about 30 minutes a day practicing mindfulness exercises, and had their brains studied before-and after by MRI.
Researchers found increased ‘grey-matter’ density in the hippocampus, a center of learning and memory, and in areas associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Participants reported reductions in anxiety and stress.
The significance of this study is that — like others before — it documents that changes produced by meditation are deep and lasting, not transitory. I.E. Mindfulness practice changes brain traits, not just brain states.
Lessons for swimmers:
1) Focal Points, Stroke Counts and Tempo Trainer beeps are, in fact, mantras — the essential tools of meditation.
2) Moving Meditation, by merging thought and action, is even more powerful at effecting lasting change in brain structure. This is because (i) aerobic activity increases the supply of oxygen and glycogen, which fuels muscle and brain cells; (ii) physical activity increases secretion of a protein that is the building block of ‘grey matter'; and (iii) as I posted on Dec 3 while passive meditation creates Theta state brainwaves (4-7 cycles/second), moving meditation puts the brain in the “superlearning” Alpha state (8-12 cycles/second).
3) Every time you push off a wall, do so with a targeted thought or intention — a task that will require your full attention. (Once more, the reason I plan every practice and set to produce Arduous Experience and Cognitive Difficulty.)
Simple exertion — no matter how long or hard — may be good for physical fitness but neglects brain fitness.
Mindful Swimming optimizes both brain and body.