What is cognition?
Cognition can be described as your brain’s ability to process information- that includes your senses, memories, thoughts, attention, reasoning, language and mathematical abilities! Basically, if your brain was a computer, it’s all the tasks it performs as you go through life.
So, your ability to perform effectively at school, work, and home all depends on your cognition. Cognition also contributes to our behaviours and emotions, so it impacts every aspect of our life including the social and emotional.
Your cognitive abilities will fluctuate over time depending on all sorts of factors- your mood, tiredness, exercise, nutrition, hydration, and psychoactive drugs (e.gg caffeine). In most cases, taking good care of yourself and leading a balanced lifestyle is the best way to enhance your cognition.
Can mindfulness improve your cognition?
More high quality research is needed, but research suggests mindfulness training could enhance several aspects of attention, including sustained attention (focussing for a long period of time), and selective attention (choosing what to pay attention to and what to ignore).
There is also evidence mindfulness can enhance your executive function and working memory abilities. Executive function is the set of skills needed to control our behaviour- such as inhibition of and flexibility in our thoughts and responses. Working memory is the ability to hold information in your head ‘online’ and manipulate it- e.g. keeping numbers in your head and doing calculations with them. However, there is still a need for more rigorous research to verify these findings and establish what kinds of mindfulness practices are best for which cognitive outcomes.
Mindfulness involves training your focus and attention, as you practice bringing yourself back to the present moment (e.g. your breath, senses, visualisations) as opposed to letting your mind run wild. Your brain is like a muscle, where networks that you practice using become stronger and easier to use, so mindfulness could make it easier to use the cognitive abilities it involves (self awareness, self regulation, attentional control) in other contexts.
For example, there is evidence that your anterior cingulate cortex (involved in attention) is activated by and actually changes in response to mindfulness meditation. Other areas of the brain that appear to change with mindfulness meditation are the prefrontal cortex (important for planning and decision making), insula (thought to be involved in consciousness, compassion, and self-awareness), striatum (involved in motor function and motivation) and amygdala (associated with emotions and memory). Of course the brain is complex, so we can’t assume what the result of these changes would be, and more research is needed to establish the whole-brain responses to mindfulness and how this corresponds to psychological and behavioural outcomes. Cognition could also indirectly benefit from mindfulness through improved wellbeing, stress levels, and sleep.
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