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Random Brain-Related Research

The following is a collection of short reports on brain-related research. The first report looks at the possible risks of being bored. Then the advantages of self-discipline are considered. Finally, there are studies that show a new benefit from meditation, and how brain damage seems to cause spirituality.

Deadly Boredom

As reported in the International Journal of Epidemiology, University College, London, researchers, using data from 7524 civil servants, have discovered that those who are commonly bored are more likely to die. They questioned the workers, ages 35 to 55, between 1985 and 1988, asking them about how bored they typically are. Then in April of 2009 they looked at who was still alive and who had died. The subjects which reported the highest levels of boredom were 37% more likely to be dead.

The nature of the causal connection is speculation at this point. Those who are bored may engage in more unhealthy behaviors, such as heavy drinking or over-eating. That would decrease a person's life expectancy. Whatever the chain of causation, though, the lesson seems to be: Get interested in life if you want more of it.

Self-Discipline and Brainpower

A study reported in the journal Psychological Science, addressed the issue of IQ level, self-discipline, and academic performance. Basically, the study found that while IQ level did correlate with academic performance, there was a much stronger correlation with self-discipline. Students with high self-discipline have much better grades than high-IQ students. They also found that there was no correlation between IQ and discipline. They are traits that vary independently.

Studies in the 1980s found that the ability of young children to delay gratification was positively correlated with academic achievement a decade later. These studies involved offering children a cookie now while giving them the choice to forgo the cookie and instead have two cookies later. The ability to delay gratification is obviously a component of self-discipline.

What does this have to do with brainpower? It demonstrates my contention that brainpower is more like "brain-potential" if it isn't used properly. One definition of power, after all, is "The ability to act effectively." Raw computing capacity doesn't make a computer or a human effective if there aren't the other necessary components.

Research on Meditation

You know that I am a fan of meditation for increasing brainpower. Well, the latest research shows that it not only makes your brain perform better, but may actually reduce the amount of sleep you need. This is good news for those of us who don't feel like we have the time for meditation. Perhaps we can just take the time from our sleep time if we want to.

A study at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, used the established "psychomotor vigilance task," which is used to quantify the effects of sleepiness on mental ability. Participants look at a LCD screen and press a button when they see an image pop up. Typical response time is under 300 milliseconds. Sleep-deprived people consistently take longer, or just miss the stimulus altogether.

Subjects had 40 minutes of sleep, meditation, reading, or light conversation before and after testing. All subjects tried all four pre-test activities in different tests. A 40 minute nap had already been proven to improve performance, when subjects are given an hour to get past the after-nap grogginess. The researchers were surprised to find, though, that only meditation caused an immediate improvement in performance. This was true even though none of the volunteers were experienced meditators.

Interestingly, every single subject showed improvement. When testing was done after a night without sleep, the improvement was even more dramatic. What was not determined is why meditation improves brain performance.

The Spiritual Brain?

As reported on New Scientist, a recent study done by neuroscientists at the University of Udine in Italy, found that removing part of the brain can induce more feelings of inner peace. This is considered by some to be the best evidence so far that spiritual thinking arises in, or is limited by, specific brain areas.

88 people with brain tumors were interviewed before and after surgery. After removal of tumors in the parietal cortex, patients reported a greater sense of self-transcendence - which was not the case for patients with tumors removed from the frontal regions of the brain. Questions asked of the patients (three to seven days after surgery) addressed three components of spirituality or self-transcendence: losing yourself in the moment, feeling connected to other people and nature, and believing in a higher power.

Of course, an abstract concept like self-transcendence will mean different things to different people, and patient self-reporting is not always accurate. We will see what future studies show us.

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