About a decade ago, I read in a magazine that if you want to lose weight, buy a full-length mirror. Then again, a few years ago, I was at a musicians' workshop, and the guy at the front said, "if you want to improve as a musician, the number one thing you need to do is buy a recording device so you can listen to yourself over and over again." Career coaches say something in a similar vein: if you want to advance your career, find someone who can give you feedback. In all cases, it's about finding a "reflection" of yourself.
So it would make sense, then, that if we want to extend our mental longevity, the best thing we can do is develop a practice of casting our minds back on our own thought processes. Human beings are the only species in the animal kingdom to have this ability to train our attention back on our own stream of attention. However easy it sounds, it's not something we naturally do, and we need to do it. The Alzheimer Socity of Canada, issuing an urgent call for a national dementia strategy, says that in 2011, 747,000 Canadians had Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, and I'm assuming that's just the diagnosed cases. They project that 20 years on, that rate will be 1.4 million.
And as we know from neurological studies, meditation preserves the brain, which starts declining after our twenties. One recent study conducted jointly by UCLA and Australian National University found that despite the inevitable decline, meditation slows down the decline. They compared meditators in their mid-twenties to their mid-seventies to a control group, and correlated the grey matter with age. Although both the meditators and the control group showed reductions in grey matter volumes, the meditators's deceleration over time was less steep than non-meditators'.
Meditation helps preserve the brain even after you take up meditation as a senior too, and are already showing the effects of memory loss.
Researchers had a group of adults with [Mild Cognitive Impairment], all between the ages of 55 and 90, do a guided meditation for 15 to 30 minutes a day for eight weeks, as well attend weekly mindfulness check-ins. Eight weeks later, MRIs showed improved functional connectivity in the default mode network (translation: the part of your brain that never shuts down activity), and slowed shrinkage of the hippocampus, the main part of the brain responsible for memory that usually shrinks with dementia. Participants also showed an overall improvement in cognition and well-being [Source].
But there's a reason to not put off meditation until you're a senior. It does more than slow down our aging- it slows down time for us too, so we can have more moments of expansive presence while we're young. Modern philosopher, Jacob Needleman, says that despite advances in technology that are meant to save us time and grant more moments of presence, the modern westerner feels instead like she's running out of time, breathlessly racing to and fro getting about the same amount of things done as before technology-- maybe even less. It's not our fault, he says. Despite "the innumerable transformations of human life that are being brought about by new technology, the essential element to recognize is how much of what we call 'progress' is accompanied by and measured by the fact that human beings need less and less conscious attention to perform their activities and lead their lives." So basically we're doing more things on automatic as in pre-technology times, and our brains are only too happy to get to take a break if we let them. But, says Needleman, the effects of allowing our brains off the hook are one of the greatest causes of human misery- a pinched anxiety over lack of time. We can achieve true timelessness, he says, by turning out attention back over on our own thoughts.
One of the homework exercises he gets his students to do at the beginning of a class is to find a spot to sit at home for ten minutes without doing anything- not reading, not thinking, just sitting there being. He says it's one of the most difficult things to do as a human- to just be without being preoccupied. I'm the office manager at an elementary school and I remember this one time when I first started, I had a kid sit on the couch outside my office and wait for their parents, and I looked at them just sitting there with nothing to do and I got a little panicked, like "so they just supposed to SIT there, Erin? Come on. They're going to be bored! They need something to do!" so I was like, "do you have homework? Do you have a book to read? Do you have ANYTHING TO DO TO FILL THE TIME??!!" Now I don't get so anxious anymore when a kid is just sitting there doing nothing. Of course if they're in class, that's a different story...
I posted a video of Jacob Needleman speaking. I posted the whole hour-long video a few days ago, but if ... you're short on time... I posted a shorter section. He's a great teacher, very compassionate. It's worth it.