Meditation, not medication: cognitive enhancement done right

Meditation, not medication: cognitive enhancement done right

Stimulant abuse for the sake of good grades has contaminated universities worldwide. Given that pressure to perform is unlikely to be relieved, educators should at least ensure that students can strive for success in a healthy manner. Meditation may be the way.

Popping pills to keep up

In a world that is rife with pressures, where university students consistently struggle with balancing the demands of their academic work and maintaining peer relationships, it is no surprise that they succumb to popping pills to speed up their learning. After all, the world around them never stops.

Many turn to the so-called ‘study drugs’: these are prescription drugs (such as adderall), used primarily to treat ADHD and ADD . However, 5 to 30% of university students are predicted to use such drugs without a prescription, or any biological necessity. Instead, healthy students use them to enhance their cognitive performance and increase their concentration.

Risks associated with study drugs

Although the idea of an ‘attention booster in a pill’ may sound enticing, it causes some serious issues. These problems are four-pronged:

  1. There are concerns of social justice, as the use of study drugs without a prescription may be considered ‘cheating’, especially in exam settings. It would not be far-fetched to compare the issue to the likes of doping in sports.
  2. The long-term side effects of healthy people taking study drugs are unknown. However, the harm they have been shown to cause in the short term should be warning enough. The symptoms are wide and varied, and may include mood swings, increased feelings of anxiety and nervousness, various somatic issues (including fatigue), heart palpitations and increased blood pressure.
  3. Study drugs may induce a distortion of one’s perception of reality, stemming from stunted behavior and emotional expression. As such, students’ ability to evaluate their own experiences and freedoms may be inhibited.
  4. Much like any other drug, study pills can bring about addiction and dependence.

A call for a non-pharmacological alternative

Despite the aforementioned risks, students do not seem to be deterred. 85% of those who take study drugs claim to do so to improve their grades. And yet, studies have found that the drugs exert only modest cognitive-enhancing effects when used by healthy individuals. When the adverse side effects and their addictive potential are taken into consideration, the need to implement a healthier alternative as a way to combat the stimulant epidemic becomes clear. Thankfully, non-pharmacological approaches are on the rise, with mindfulness meditation being one of them.

Meditating into focus

Mindfulness meditation encourages practitioners to gently direct their attention towards their breathing and bodily sensations while remaining receptive and non-judgemental with regard to any interfering thoughts that inevitably arise during practice. Its benefits include mood improvement and stress reduction, and they have also been found to aid in treating various medical disorders and to enhance certain domains of cognitive functioning.

As for cognition, mindfulness meditation is most suitable for teaching meditators to direct their attention towards the desired stimuli, as well as helping them sustain it for longer periods of time without getting distracted. Notably, studies have found that even brief interventions (for instance, consisting of only four 20-minute sessions) can lead to the aforementioned improvements. This makes it ideal for students to engage in mindfulness meditation directly before study sessions, so as to help them focus on the material and perhaps reduce their overall study time.

Putting mindfulness meditation into practice

Such an intervention has successfully been implemented in an experimental setting: college students engaged in a 10-minute guided mindfulness meditation, which involved relaxation techniques and focusing on one’s breathing. They subsequently participated in a 60-minute long study session, followed by another short meditation. The intervention seems to have positively influenced their college performance over the long term, as assessed by their higher grade point averages in the semester following the experiment.

A similar procedure explored the effects of meditation on college students’ ability to retain information in the context of a lecture. They took part in a 10- to 20-minute mindfulness meditation, where an experienced practitioner instructed them to sit down in a comfortable position and focus on their nostrils and the sensation of breathing. They subsequently listened to a lecture. The intervention displayed immediate success, as the students who underwent it scored significantly better on the knowledge tests that immediately followed the lecture (than those who did not meditate beforehand). Interestingly, no long-term effects on performance were found.

Final verdict

Regardless of the duration of the effects, meditation evidently enhances some aspects of cognition. Given the risks imposed by stimulants, which greatly exceed those associated with meditative practices, this finding should be sufficient reason to implement a preventative mindfulness-based intervention at universities. In congruence with previous research, the guided portion of the intervention could last throughout the first semester of the academic year. To promote further independent practice, university staff may do well to implement additional measures, such as educating students or recommending any one of the myriad of mindfulness apps available for subscription.

In this way, students may not even feel the need to pop that first pill and set themselves up for a potential downward spiral. This will allow universities to foster not only a productive and knowledgeable student body, but also a healthy one.