I begin every day with a 1-hour meditation. As do many of the most successful people you know. Including rock stars, actors, corporate CEOs, TV and radio hosts, authors, and professional athletes.[i]
And one of the little secrets we have discovered is nootropics and meditation make for a profound combination.
The benefits of meditation are supported and often accelerated when using nootropic supplements.
If you’ve tried meditation once or twice and abandoned it because it was too hard, I’m hoping this post will help you reconsider. Because it’s not difficult to do.
And if you do meditate and want to know how to improve your daily practice, this post can help.
First, we investigate some of the clinical research reporting the benefits of meditation. And how it increases brain gray matter, reduces mind-wandering, boosts IQ, improves concentration, executive-function, memory, helps pain tolerance, improves sociability, and relief from migraines.
Once we know how meditation changes the brain, we can then select the best nootropics to support those mechanisms of action.
Then we conclude this post with a brief explanation of the different forms of meditation. And how it’s done.
How Meditation Works in the Brain
Meditation increases gray matter
This structural deterioration progressively leads to cognitive impairment, increased risk of mental illness and neurodegenerative disease.
But research over the last 20 years has demonstrated that age-related cognitive decline can be controlled by meditation.
A study conducted by the Department of Neurology at UCLA included 50 meditation practitioners and 50 control subjects aged 24 – 77 years.
Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the team scanned subject’s brains; whole-brain and local sections of gray matter.
The team found that long-term meditators experienced far less age-related gray matter loss in 9 different brain sectors than controls.
Or, this gray matter increase in meditators could be due to a reduction in harmful immune response gene expression, HPA axis hyperactivity, and modulation of inflammation and reactive oxygen species (ROS).[ii]
Meditation reduces mind-wandering
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could turn down the volume of ‘monkey-mind’?
Studies prove what we all know. That a busy mind, or mind-wandering is correlated with unhappiness. Because we ruminate in the unpleasant memories of the past. Or the terror of what nastiness can happen in the future.
Things are better when we’re “living in the now”, or present moment. This is where meditation comes in.
To find out why meditators seemed to be happier in general, researchers measured brain activity in experienced meditators and those who didn’t normally meditate.
Brains were measured while both groups performed several different forms of meditation. And found that the default-mode network (medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices) were deactivated in experienced meditators no matter what kind of meditation they were practicing.
They also found a stronger connectivity or coupling between the posterior cingulate, dorsal anterior cingulate, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices (regions previously implicated in self-monitoring and cognitive control).
The study proved that the default-mode network was responsible for mind-wandering. And meditation decreased activity of the monkey-mind parts of the brain.[iii]
Meditation boosts concentration
Sometimes it seems impossible to maintain focus and concentration right when we need it most. Our mind wanders, and we lose focus.
But meditators have known for thousands of years that meditation practice can prevent this degradation in attention and concentration well into old age.
Scientists at the University of Miami and University of California, Davis published a study in 2018 on research they have been conducting on meditation and concentration for the last 7 years.
In this study, 60 experienced practitioners used Samatha meditation (traditional form of Buddhist mindfulness meditation). The basic idea is to focus on something simple like breathing to quiet the mind.
Subjects participated in a meditation retreat and were assessed before, and at regular intervals after the retreat.
The scientists found “robust” improvements in perceptual discrimination, response-time and vigilance immediately after the meditation retreat.
Some changes were permanent even after 7 years.
And those who maintained a regular meditation practice for the following 7-years preserved the gains in all forms of concentration measured.[v]
Meditation reduces anxiety in 10 minutes
Think about the last time you were anxious about something. Chances are that anxiety came from your mind wandering off in some other direction. Somewhere other than the task at hand.
Meditation can fix that.
Researchers at the University of Waterloo recruited a sample of highly-anxious undergraduate students. The students were asked to perform a task on a computer while experiencing interruptions to gauge their ability to stay focused on the task.
The research team then split the students into two groups. The control group was given an auditory story to listen to. While the other students engaged in a 10-minute meditation exercise.
The meditation practice helped the students shift their attention from their own internal worries to the present-moment external world. Which helped them focus on the task at hand.[vi]
Stop and think about those last two sentences again. Imagine how a quick meditation could turn down the anxiety dial and ramp up your focus.
Meditation increases IQ
Your cerebral cortex, the outer layer of your brain plays a role in memory, attention, thinking and consciousness.
Gyrification or cortical folding is where the surface of your brain undergoes changes to create furrows (sulci) and folds (gyri). Those are the ‘ridges’ you see when looking at an image of a human brain.
Scientists now believe the more folds you have means your brain is better at processing information, decision-making, and memory formation.[vii]
This cortical gyrification is affected by meditation. And why meditation practitioners have more “gray matter” which we covered earlier in this post.
Scientists at the UCLA School of Medicine examined cortical gyrification of 100 meditators and controls.
The team found a correlation between gyrification and the number of meditation years. And found that certain segments of the cerebral cortex were significantly more developed in meditators.
The key brain segments found to have increased gyrification accounted for meditators ability to deal with daydreaming, mind-wandering and projections into the past and future.[viii]
Meditation increases executive function
Executive functions are defined as three core abilities;
- Response inhibition (the ability to control your behavior, including stopping actions and thoughts)
- Self-monitoring (updating, or the ability to monitor self-presentations in order to ensure appropriate or expected public appearance)
- Cognitive flexibility (shifting, or the ability to think flexibly or switch freely from one status to another)[ix]
Regular meditation practice supports executive function.
A 2012 study demonstrated that students who meditated showed a performance improvement on advanced executive functions over a semester as compared to a control group.[x]
And it works in the elderly too.
Extensive research published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience shows a positive relationship between meditation and cognitive flexibility in the elderly.[xi]
One study with 73 seniors with an average age of 81 years demonstrated those who performed transcendental meditation or mindfulness for 12 weeks had improved executive functions.
And after 3-years, the majority of elderly meditators retained the positive effects from meditating.[xii]
Meditation improves working memory
A research team at the University of Pennsylvania recruited two groups of soldiers. One group attended an 8-week mindfulness course. And the other group acted as the control.
The research team tested working memory twice before, and again twice after the 8-weeks for both groups.
Working memory capacity for the soldiers who took the mindfulness meditation training increased during and after the training. But working memory declined in the control group.
The researchers concluded that meditation practice may protect against functional memory impairments associated with high-stress situations.[xiii]
Meditation improves sociability
Loving-kindness meditation and compassion meditation have become increasingly popular in our society.
This type of meditation is oriented towards enhancing unconditional, positive emotional states of kindness and compassion.
In a landmark study published in 2008, Dr. Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and colleagues found that practicing 7 weeks of mindfulness meditation increased love, joy, contentment, gratitude, pride, hope, interest, amusement and awe.
Participants in the study reported that this meditation practice produced incremental increases in mindfulness, more purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness the longer they practiced.[xiv]
Several more clinical studies have supported this initial finding. Including brain imaging studies demonstrating the physical changes in your brain. Areas previously identified as the location of emotional processing and empathy.[xv]
Results of even more studies show meditation leads to positive emotions, positive social connections, and physical health. And all three influence one another in a self-sustaining upward spiral leading to a better and more satisfying life.[xvi]
Even a small dose of Loving Kindness Meditation practiced in a single, short session lasting less than 10 minutes increases feelings of social connection and positivity toward strangers.[xvii]
Great example of a loving-kindness meditation developed at Stanford University is here: https://youtu.be/auS1HtAz6Bs
Meditation increases pain tolerance
If you deal with chronic pain, someone at some stage has told you “it’s all in your head”. They don’t believe you. And all you want to do is scream. Or strangle them.
It turns out that it really is in your head. Your brain receives a signal from somewhere in your body telling you that you’re feeling pain. Along with the anxiety that comes from anticipating more pain.
Meditation can help with both the pain and anxiety.
Duke University Medical Center conducted an 8-week loving-kindness pilot study with 43 patients dealing with low back pain. Standardized measures assessed patients’ pain, anger, and psychological distress.
The study authors concluded after 8 weeks that “the loving-kindness program can be beneficial in reducing pain, anger, and psychological distress in patients with persistent low back pain”.[xviii]
Meditation reduces migraines
Meditation is gaining in popularity as an effective means of managing migraine pain and the emotional states that come with migraines.
In this study, 27 migraine sufferers with 2 – 10 migraines per month attended one 20-minute guided loving-kindness meditation session. None of the patients had attempted meditation before.
After the session, participants reported a 33% decrease in pain and a 43% decrease in emotional tension.
The study authors concluded that “single exposure to a meditative technique can significantly reduce pain and tension.”[xix]
Best Nootropics to Support Meditation
Over 30 years of research and clinical studies show us how meditation changes the brain. Now we can select the best nootropic supplement to support each of these mechanisms of action in the brain.
It’s been my experience that the right nootropics help me achieve a crystal-clear meditative state. And benefits that I can often feel as my brain makes changes in response to meditation.
From the studies we investigated earlier in this post, we know that meditation increases gray matter, reduces mind-wandering, boosts IQ and executive function, and helps working memory.
Some of these changes are directly attributable to manipulating brain wave activity during meditation. And others depend on brain cell signaling and neuroplasticity needed for increasing gray matter, executive function and working memory.
Most of the nootropics reviewed here on Nootropics Expert affect each of these functions in our brain. Here we’ll touch on a few that we’ve found helpful in supporting meditation.
These brain wave patterns closely correlate with your thoughts, ability to think clearly, emotions and your mood. And your brain produces four primary brain waves; alpha, beta, delta and theta.
Beta brain waves
The most rapid pattern is called beta brain waves and is your normal, waking consciousness. Beta is associated with concentration, arousal, alertness, and cognition. But at its highest wave form it is associated with anxiety, disharmony, and feelings of dis-ease.
As beta brain waves slow is one of the reasons meditators are generally less stressed and have fewer stress-induced medical issues.
Phosphatidylserine (PS) – is a phospholipid component of brain cell membranes. It plays a role in cell-to-cell signaling in the brain. And as a nootropic, PS significantly reduces beta brain waves.[xx]
Alpha brain waves
Alpha is the primary brain wave pattern of meditation. As you become more relaxed your brain waves drop into an alpha brain wave pattern. Fluctuating between 8 – 12 times per second, the slowest alpha is a state of deep relaxation.
It’s that place where you’re not quite asleep but not quite awake either. But at the higher end of alpha you’re more focused yet still very relaxed. Alpha brain waves are associated with super-learning, flow states, and joy.
Theta brain waves
Even slower, theta brain waves at 4 – 8 times per second are the brain waves you make while dreaming at night. Or visionary experiences while meditating.
You can slide into a theta brain wave pattern during meditation. It’s associated with creativity, sudden insights (an ah-ha moment), and the ability to move information from short-term to long-term memory.
Neuroplasticity and gray matter
Many studies show that meditation increases gray matter in certain segments of the cerebral cortex. Gray matter refers to the mass of neurons that make up your cerebral cortex, cerebellum, cerebrum and other areas of your brain.
Increases in gray matter depend on neuron growth or neurogenesis, and a good blood supply for nutrients and oxygen.
Some of the nootropics we’ve already looked at under the brain wave section of this post do double or triple duty as well.
So, in addition to the nootropics mentioned above, the following nootropics will also help you with a better meditation experience.
CDP-Choline (Citicoline) – helps in neuron repair and brain cell signaling, enhances the release of acetylcholine, dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. It provides the choline needed for the synthesis of acetylcholine in your brain. And increases ATP which is the fuel used to power mitochondria in brain cells.
Lithium Orotate – this mineral upregulates BDNF, NGF and neurotrophin-3 needed for neurogenesis (gray matter). And stimulates the proliferation of stem cells in the brain which also assists in neurogenesis.
N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine (NALT) – provide the L-Tyrosine which converts into L-DOPA and then goes on to produce dopamine in your brain. Supplementing with NALT can help meditation by boosting concentration, focus, mood and improves executive function.
Pine Bark Extract – is an extract of French maritime pine bark. And is used as a nootropic supplement for meditation because it boosts cerebral blood flow. Which supplies brain cells with the nutrients and oxygen it needs. And improves executive function and working memory.
Rhodiola Rosea – is an adaptogen used for meditation because it improves concentration for extended periods. It boosts the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and beta-endorphins. Rhodiola helps neurogenesis which is required for increasing gray matter. And activates the synthesis and re-synthesis of ATP which is your brain cells’ primary energy source.
Types of and how to meditate
Meditation can be divided into two broad, general categories:
- Focused attention – including focusing on only your breath, on an idea or feeling such as loving-kindness, or to a mantra as taught in transcendental meditation (TM)
- Open monitoring – non-reactive or non-judgmental monitoring of the content of your thought including external experience (i.e. sounds, etc.) from moment to moment[xxvi]
I first learned to meditate with the help of Victor Davich’s book “8 Minute Meditation”. Easy to understand and follow, Davich based his idea around meditation for busy people who can only spare the time equal to the average number of minutes devoted to commercials during a standard 30-minute television episode.
8 Minute Meditation is a combination of focusing on your breath while noting bodily sensations and watching your thoughts (open monitoring) non-judgmentally. And amazingly effective even for the beginner.
One of the most researched meditation techniques is based on the concept of mindfulness. This is a combined technique of focused attention (breath and physical awareness) without judgement (open monitoring).
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a popular example of this type of meditation created by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.
MBSR was my first ‘formal’ education in meditation taught during an 8-week course at the University of Miami. An easy and effective way to learn meditation, MBSR is a combination of mindfulness meditation, body awareness and yoga.
You can easily learn MBSR by checking if it’s taught at a university, community center, or college near you. Or you can do the class online with the University of Massachusetts. Or get the CD’s and learn on your own.
Learning meditation is easy and available to anyone who wants to try. Use either of the resources I mentioned above or choose from the thousands of books, videos, and courses available anywhere in the world.
Just one of the many benefits of meditation investigated here, even a simple 10—minute meditation can increase your awareness and reduce absent-minded errors.[xxvii]
One last word on meditation – a 20-minute daily practice is far more effective than longer but infrequent sessions.
Are you willing to spare 20 minutes a day to tame the monkey-mind, boost your IQ, improve concentration, executive-function, and memory, experience less pain tolerance, reduce anxiety, and be a little more sociable?
Imagine how a quiet mind could change your life.
[iii] Brwer J.A., Worhunsky P.D., Gray J.R., Tang Y., Weber J., Kober H. “Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America December 13, 2011. 108 (50) 20254-20259 (source)
[iv] Fortenbaugh, F. C., DeGutis, J., Germine, L., Wilmer, J. B., Grosso, M., Russo, K., & Esterman, M. “Sustained attention across the life span in a sample of 10,000: dissociating ability and strategy.” Psychological Science, 26, 1497–1510. (source)
[v] Zanesco A.P., King B.G., MacLean K.A., Saron C.D. "Cognitive Aging and Long-Term Maintenance of Attentional Improvements Following Meditation Training” Journal of Cognitive Enhancement September 2018, Volume 2, Issue 3, pp 259–275 (source)
[vii] Luders E., Narr K.L., Bilder R.M., Szeszko P.R., Gurbani M.N., Hamilton L., Toga A.W., Gaser C. “Mapping the relationship between cortical convolution and intelligence: effects of gender.” Cerebral Cortex. 2008 Sep;18(9):2019-26. (source)
[viii] Luders E., Kurth F., Mayer E.A., Toga A.W., Narr K.L., Gaser C. “The unique brain anatomy of meditation practitioners: alterations in cortical gyrification.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2012 Feb 29;6:34 (source)
[ix] Miyake, A., Friedman, N. P., Emerson, M. J., Witzki, A. H., Howerter, A., & Wager, T. D. “The unity and diversity of executive functions and their contributions to complex “Frontal Lobe” tasks: A latent variable analysis.” Cognitive Psychology, 41(1), 49−100. (source)
[xi] Marciniak, R., Sheardova, K., Čermáková, P., Hudeček, D., Šumec, R., & Hort, J. “Effect of meditation on cognitive functions in context of aging and neurodegenerative diseases.” Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience, 2014; 8: 17. (source)
[xii] Alexander C.N., Langer E.J., Newman R.I., Chandler H.M., Davies J.L. “Transcendental meditation, mindfulness, and longevity: an experimental study with the elderly.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1989 Dec;57(6):950-64. (source)
[xiii] Jha A.P., Stanley E.A., Kiyonaga A., Wong L., Gelfand L. “Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity and affective experience.” Emotion. 2010 Feb;10(1):54-64.
[xiv] Fredrickson B.L., Cohn M.A., Coffey KA1, Pek J., Finkel S.M. “Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2008 Nov;95(5):1045-1062 (source)
[xv] Cofie L.V., et. al. “Structural plasticity of the social brain: Differential change after socio-affective and cognitive mental training” Science Advances 04 Oct 2017: Vol. 3, no. 10, e1700489 (source)
[xvi] Kok B.E., Coffey K.A., Cohn M.A. “Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone” Psychological Science Volume: 24 issue: 7, page(s): 1123-1132 (source)
[xviii] Carson J.W., Keefe F.J., Lynch T.R., Carson K.M., Goli V., Fras A.M., Thorp S.R. “Loving-kindness meditation for chronic low back pain: results from a pilot trial.” Journal of Holistic Nursing. 2005 Sep;23(3):287-304. (source)
[xx] Baumeister J., Barthel T., Geiss K.R., Weiss M. “Influence of phosphatidylserine on cognitive performance and cortical activity after induced stress.” Nutritional Neuroscience. 2008 Jun;11(3):103-10. (source)
[xxii] Domino E.F., Ni L., Thompson M., Zhang H., Shikata H., Fukai H., Sakaki T., Ohya I. “Tobacco smoking produces widespread dominant brain wave alpha frequency increases.” International Journal of Psychophysiology. 2009 Dec;74(3):192-8 (source)
[xxiii] Dimpfel W., Storni C., Verbruggen M. “Ingested oat herb extract (Avena sativa) changes EEG spectral frequencies in healthy subjects.” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2011 May;17(5):427-34. (source)
[xxv] Park S.K., Jung I.C., Lee W.K., Lee Y.S., Park H.K., Go H.J., Kim K., Lim N.K., Hong J.T., Ly S.Y., Rho S.S. “A combination of green tea extract and l-theanine improves memory and attention in subjects with mild cognitive impairment: a double-blind placebo-controlled study.” Journal of Medicinal Food. 2011 Apr;14(4):334-43. (source)
[xxvii] Mrazek M.D., Smallwood J., Franklin M.S., Chin J.M., Baird B., Schooler J.W. “The role of mind-wandering in measurements of general aptitude.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 2012 Nov;141(4):788-98