Get 'brain fit' for critical thinking and peak physical performance under stress

From extreme athletes to Harvard's Business and Medical Schools, meditation is being used to unlock peak performance. Why should law enforcement be left out?


Thanks to neuroscience, we know which parts of our brain control different thoughts and actions. The prefrontal regions are responsible for analytic reasoning, cognitive flexibility, and impulse and desire inhibition. The amygdala, hypothalamus and striatum are the reactive emotional areas – hunches, gut feelings and reflexes.

When the latter are in control, we react automatically without analyzing and looking for additional cues as stimuli, explains Rajita Sinha, director of the Yale University School of Medicine’s Stress Center. Reaching for a cellphone may be perceived as going for a gun.   

As a neuroscientist, Dr. Karolien Notebaert, was searching for how to rein in amygdala activation and boost the prefrontal cortex – an area needed for peak performance. She found it – in an exercise that conditions the brain like certain workouts condition different muscles. The regimen actually leads to physical changes in the brain and increased performance.

Neuroscience has discovered several ways meditation changes the brain’s structure and function. (Photo/Pixabay)
Neuroscience has discovered several ways meditation changes the brain’s structure and function. (Photo/Pixabay)

How meditation changes our brains

Neuroscience has discovered several ways meditation changes the brain’s structure and function:

  • It enlarges the prefrontal cortex by increasing brain cells in this area.
  • It shrinks the amygdala, which is associated with greater emotional control.
  • It thickens the hippocampus, which is key for learning and memory.
  • It increases overall gray matter important for processing power and linked to intelligence.
  • It enhances gamma waves associated with a state of heightened awareness.

The brain’s neuroplasticity – the capacity of neurons and neural networks to change their connections and behavior in response to new information, sensory stimulation and development – has given rise to the concept of “mental fitness.” It’s not just about managing stress and improving recovery. It’s about achieving peak performance. Moreover, you don’t have to “ommm” on a mountain top for decades. Studies show physical brain changes start occurring after just a few weeks of meditation practices.

Pioneering neuropsychologist Michael Posner from the University of Oregon, and his colleagues, found increased levels of myelin after only two to four weeks of meditation practice. This “brain insulation” helps different brain regions communicate faster and more efficiently, leading to improved attention in different tasks.

Research by psychologists at the University of North Carolina found meditation-trained participants showed a significant improvement in their critical cognitive skills and performed significantly better in cognitive tests than a control group after just four days of training for only 20 minutes each day.

Everybody’s doing it

Forbes is touting meditation as part of a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) for the mind to “supercharge” business leaders’ work performance. Mixed martial arts and  professional basketball champions are turning to meditation “to improve their game.” A study with U.S. Marines found that a combination of meditation and body awareness exercises helped them prepare for, as well as recover from, stressful combat situations.

Last December, Harvard Medical School offered a course titled “Meditation for Everyday Living and Peak Performance for Mental Health, Medical and Surgical Practices.” Learning objectives included:

  • Review evidence-based foundations of meditation and visualization practice:
  • Utilize meditative concentration and visualization practices to help enhance peak performance;
  • Choose specific practices for performance anxiety and other things that interfere with performance excellence;
  • Use concentration meditation training to stabilize the mind so that it stays focused without distraction;
  • Apply insight medication training to cultivate continuous and complete presence to whatever you are doing at the moment.

Meditative meditation? Concentration meditation? Insight meditation? Scientists are discovering that meditation for the mind is like exercise for the body – there are lots of different kinds. In 2017, in one of the largest studies on meditation and the brain, it was discovered that different types of meditation strengthen the brain in different ways.

Mindfulness meditation resulted in thickening in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, an area involved in complex thinking, decision-making and attention. Those findings could help researchers develop tailored training programs for specific areas of the brain to help people perform better in various areas of their lives. The 2017 study’s team intends to focus on studying the effects of three different types of meditation on people working in highly stressful professions.

Meditation for law enforcement

I’ve written about Phoenix (Arizona) Police Officer Mike Malpass before. Mike got me interested in how neuroscience can improve law enforcement training. He’s written about it and implemented it in his department. Before he became a 24-year veteran officer, Mike was a competitive fighter. That’s when he learned that “mental fitness” was critical to success in the ring.

Mike meditates daily. He’s been trying different forms of meditation for 10 years and been using the Muse system mindfulness meditation for five years. I asked Mike how meditation could improve officers’ performance in high-stress incidents. Here’s what he explained. I’ve provided links that show the science that backs him up.

There are different types of intelligence:

  • Crystallized intelligence involves knowledge that comes from prior learning and past experiences.
  • Fluid intelligence involves being able to think and reason abstractly and solve problems, independent of previously acquired knowledge. As Dr. John Medina described it in his best-selling book Brain Rules for Aging Well, “it involves our abilities to flexibly generate, transform and manipulate new information.”

Meditation improves fluid intelligence. Speaking from experience, Mike said, “Being mindful, in the deep now, with a brain predicting calm confidence based on past experiences, you open up the ability to use fluid or lateral thinking to come up with solutions to volatile, time-compressed problems that at first don’t seem to have an apparent immediate solution. Fluid intelligence is an absolute must in situations that provide an opportunity to deescalate and is the secret to finding a way out of the goofy communication loops.”

Why wouldn’t we think that “mental fitness” is as key to policing in high-stress incidents as muscle memory and physical fitness? Think of meditation as a workout for your brain – flexing and growing your fluid intelligence. With mental and physical fitness, you can bring your peak performance to the challenges of policing.

NEXT: Can brain games train officers to control their minds for peak performance under stress?

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