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Excerpt from Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work
Research done on Tibetan Buddhists in the 1990s showed that longtime contemplative practice can produce brainwaves in the gamma range. Gamma waves are unusual. They arise primarily during “binding,” when novel ideas come together for the first time and carve new neural pathways. We experience binding as “Ah-Ha insight,” that eureka moment, the telltale signature of sudden inspiration. This meant that meditation could amplify complex problem solving, but, since the monks needed to put in more than 34,000 hours (roughly thirty years) to develop this skill, it was a finding with limited application.
So researchers began to consider the impact of short-term meditation on mental performance. Was it possible, they wondered, to cut some monastic corners and still get similar results? Turns out, you can cut quite a few corners. Initial studies showed eight weeks of meditation training measurably sharpened focus and cognition. Later ones whittled that down to five weeks.
Then, in 2009, psychologists at the University of North Carolina found that even four days of meditation produced significant improvement in attention, memory, vigilance, creativity, and cognitive flexibility. “Simply stated,” lead researcher Fadel Zeidan explained to Science Daily, “the profound improvements we found after just four days of meditation training are really surprising. . . .
[They’re] comparable to results that have been documented after far more extensive training.” Rather than pulling a caffeinated all-nighter to force a eureka insight, or devoting decades to becoming a monk, we now know that even a few days’ training in mindfulness can up the odds of a breakthrough considerably.