Women’s magazines love to feature fashion-and-beauty makeovers that turn Plain Janes into glamour girls. But fun as it might be to suddenly look ultra-fab, I’m far more intrigued by the idea of brain makeovers—ones that could transform us into calmer, cleverer, more creative and more focused versions of ourselves.
Well, guess what? That’s easily within reach…and it involves only minimal effort and a modest investment of time. The key is a particular form of meditation called transcendental meditation (TM).
You may recall that some months back, Bottom Line reported on how TM helps people recover from the emotional anguish of traumatic experiences such as rape (read that article here).
Now we want to tell you that TM can benefit not just trauma victims, but anyone who wants to elevate her or his cognitive skills in order to deal more successfully with life’s everyday challenges. Now that’s what I call a makeover!
But you don’t just have to take my word for it—because TM’s enthusiastic practitioners include superstars such as Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Seinfeld and director David Lynch.
Brain tune-up: We spoke with psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal, MD, author of Transcendence: Healing and Transformation through Transcendental Meditation, who told me that he’s convinced that TM actually helps optimize brain function. For instance, numerous high-quality studies demonstrate that TM can help ability in areas such as…
- Creative problem solving
- Memory, concentration, alertness and mental clarity
- Stress management
- Interpersonal negotiations
- Maintaining a positive frame of mind
As an example, Dr. Rosenthal cited a new study from Norwich University in Vermont, which found that people who practiced TM for two months scored better than a control group of nonmeditators on a variety of psychological tests, including those measuring resilience, positive disposition, and levels of anxiety and depression. Such benefits could be especially helpful to women, Dr. Rosenthal noted. “Much more than men, women generally find themselves juggling an enormous number of challenges, including careers, homes, families and friends,” he said.
The TM technique: There’s nothing mystical, religious or cultlike about TM. The simple technique involves the silent repetition of a mantra, a particular sound with no meaning that serves as a vehicle to settle the mind into a profound state of restful alertness. When your mind wanders, you simply refocus on the mantra. Traditionally TM is practiced with eyes closed for 20 minutes twice daily.
Dr. Rosenthal likened the mind to the ocean—a choppy surface with miles of calm, still water beneath. “TM is like diving down into the deep,” he explained. The practice helps the brain achieve a deeply restful level of relaxation that leads to greater mental clarity and enhanced performance.
Neurologically speaking, when people practice TM, the coherence of alpha brain waves throughout the brain is accompanied by slightly faster beta waves in the prefrontal region of the brain, behind the forehead. The alpha waves produce relaxation…while the beta waves improve focus and decision-making. Some physiological changes occur immediately, but people who practice TM regularly tend to have optimal results, probably due to increased synaptic connections (connections between brain cells). In other words, with practice, the brain may literally rewire itself.
We asked Dr. Rosenthal whether there was anything different in how a person who is meditating to improve her mind would approach her meditation, as compared with a person who is meditating to heal from trauma (as discussed in the previous article). He explained, “The technique is done exactly the same way, but what happens in your mind is different. The brain ‘plays’ with your mantra in such a way that it does what it needs. So if all is well, your meditation works to make your mind even better…and if there is trouble, then that is where the energy goes.”
Would other forms of meditation be equally effective for tuning up the brain? Dr. Rosenthal told me that they might also be helpful, yet mentioned several points that favor TM, in his opinion. For one thing, approximately 340 peer-reviewed published studies have demonstrated TM’s various positive effects on body and mind. And different forms of meditation (such as focusing on the breath or an image) affect other parts of the brain and affect people in different ways, which may or may not provide similar benefits. Also, despite its powerful effects, TM is especially easy to do.
To learn TM: You can find a certified TM teacher through the Maharishi Foundation USA (www.TM.org). (Dr. Rosenthal receives no financial compensation from this or any other TM organization.) Why seek out a teacher? Just as you can’t truly master playing a sport or musical instrument by reading about it, you can’t really learn TM from a book or article. Personalized instruction works much better.