Attention deficit disorders seem to be an epidemic in the U.S. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 3 to 5 percent of children have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and roughly 60 percent of the time the symptoms carries over into adulthood.
Characterized by the inability to concentrate, difficulty organizing tasks and repeatedly acting on impulse rather than thinking through problems, ADD limits people's abilities to succeed, whether in school or work. But to sidestep the flood of pills and medications running through the market, research has suggested that meditation may be the remedy to strengthen the mental muscle.
Working Out the Mind to Treat ADD and ADHD
In 2007, researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, highlighted that the rate of ADHD among teenagers in Finland was nearly identical to the incidence among teenagers in the U.S. The main difference was the while Americans were immediately turning to medication, most Finns were not.
"It raises questions about using medication as a first line of treatment," Dr. Susan Smalley, a behavior geneticist at UCLA and the lead author, said in the report.
Last year, a large study published in The Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry found that although most young people with ADHD benefit from medications during the first year, the effects typically decline by the third year.
"There are no long-term, lasting benefits from taking ADHD medications," Dr. James Swanson, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, and an author of the study, told The New York Times. "But mindfulness seems to be training the same areas of the brain that have reduced activity in ADHD."
Swanson went on to point out that this is why mindfulness, which revolves around controlled breathing, a peaceful environment and inner harmony, is so important. It appears to get to the root of the problem instead of hacking at the rotten fruit.
Indeed, there are dozens of different styles of meditation that allow individuals to attain cognitive control. The New York Times defines cognitive control as impulse management, emotional self-regulation, the suppression of irrelevant thoughts and learning how to pay attention.
Lee: From Tangential to Tangible
This precisely falls in line with the brain advancement efforts of Ilchi Lee, who is a master of meditation and president of the International Brain Association. As a child, Lee suffered from ADD, yet he overcame his condition naturally. How did he do this? By realizing the profound interconnectedness in the brain of the determinants of our physical, mental and spiritual health. Or in short, by training his brain through meditation, yoga and other focusing methods.
Like exercising your muscles, meditating works out the area of the brain responsible for focus. The more one practices it, the stronger those cerebral reactions become.
This mental ability of concentration, researchers have found, predicts success both in school and in work life.
According to Betty Casey, director of the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Weill Cornell Medical College, cognitive control increases steadily from about 4 to 12 years old, then plateaus. Once individuals reach the teenage years, impulses become harder to suppress, as all parents are aware.
Acting on impulse peaks around age 16, but most people in their 20s begin to achieve adult levels of cognitive control.
Kids, teenagers and adults dealing with ADD or ADHD may want to try out sitting down in a serene room and going zen for 15 minutes or so. The meditation benefits for the brain are within reach. With guidance, people can learn how to self-regulate their internal distractions, as research from Emory University and the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience have shown.
"I was a skeptic until I saw the data, and the findings are promising," Swanson said.