Mindful Swimming Transforms the Brain
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on January 24th, 2011

An increasingly popular research subject in the fields of psychology, personality and neurobiology is how meditation practice affects brain structure. A new study shows once again that practicing mindfulness grows neurons, adds to the network of connections in the brain and strengthens signal transmission across synapses.

The most recent, a Mass General Hospital study, documents  that 8 weeks practice of mindfulness meditation produces lasting changes in brain structure.

Participants spent about 30 minutes a day practicing mindfulness exercises, and had their brains studied before-and after by MRI.

Researchers found increased ‘grey-matter’ density in the hippocampus, a center of learning and memory, and in areas associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Participants reported reductions in anxiety and stress.

The significance of this study is that — like others before — it documents that changes produced by meditation are deep and lasting, not transitory. I.E. Mindfulness practice changes brain traits, not just brain states.

Lessons for swimmers:

1) Focal Points, Stroke Counts and Tempo Trainer beeps are, in fact, mantras — the essential tools of meditation.

2) Moving Meditation, by merging thought and action, is even more powerful at effecting lasting change in brain structure. This is because (i) aerobic activity increases the supply of oxygen and glycogen, which fuels muscle and brain cells; (ii) physical activity increases secretion of a protein that is the building block of ‘grey matter’; and (iii) as I posted on Dec 3 while passive meditation creates  Theta state brainwaves (4-7 cycles/second), moving meditation puts the brain in the “superlearning” Alpha state (8-12 cycles/second).

3) Every time you push off a wall, do so with a targeted thought or intention — a task that will require your full attention. (Once more, the reason I plan every practice and set to produce Arduous Experience and Cognitive Difficulty.)

Simple exertion — no matter how long or hard — may be good for physical fitness but neglects brain fitness.

Mindful Swimming optimizes both brain and body.

9 Responses to “Mindful Swimming Transforms the Brain”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by TERRY LAUGHLIN, TERRY LAUGHLIN. TERRY LAUGHLIN said: Exertion may be good for your body, but only Mindful Swimming improves both brain health and bodily health. http://fb.me/P6YRxgnL […]

  2. Tom Norris says:

    Terry, I must confess I’m having difficulty resolving “arduous” and “mindful.” In its Latin root form, arduous means “steep, difficult” (from Encarta). More conventionally, it can mean difficult to traverse. My goal has been to swim downhill, not up.
    I like the word challenging.

    In the nineties, I participated in some baseline studies at Mass General for the cognitive work you cited.

  3. Tom, I hear what you’re saying. In the end it’s semantics, not swimming. Arduous is just a word, and as such is open to interpretation. My use of it has been influenced by David Brook’s use. He has used it solely in reference to things that require constant, thoughtful attention and difficult decision making, never in a physical sense. That’s how I interpret it as well, but I can understand how the word might lead to other associations. I’d love to learn more about your experience in those Mass General studies.

  4. Tom Norris says:

    Hi Terry,

    I went once a week for, gosh, a couple months doing memory tests: numbers, words, phrases. It’s been over decade so my memory has faded (Heh, heh) The tests in each session would get progressively more difficult. I was not given an MRI. They just wanted a broad cross-section of subjects to establish baselines.

    I agree, we are here for swimming, and I apologize if I sounded too legalistic. Still, when I hear “mindful,” I’m drawn in and intrigued. When I hear “arduous,” I want to lie down and take a nap. Also, when I read arduous, it reminded me of all those years flailing away from one end of the pool to the other with little to show for it–and even less to enjoy. I will read David Brook’s work to get his take on things. I’m guessing my mindful is his arduous, so we’re most likely talking about the same thing.
    Was there a particular book he wrote that you recommend?

  5. David writes a twice-weekly column for the NY Times op-ed page. But I understand he will shortly release a book on the connection between behavior and biology. I’m sure that will be a worthwhile read.

  6. Tom Norris says:

    Terry! Oh, THAT David Brooks: I read him myself. I was thinking too much in a box. I will look forward to his book. The Times has had some great articles on mind/body relationships in their “Well” column too.

    David Brooks’ 12/06/2010 column, “Social Science Palooza,” reported some recent and interesting studies he gets from a daily e-mail sent out by Kevin Lewis who covers this area for the Boston Globe. (It would be cool to get on that e-mail list.)

    This one caught my eye:

    “People remember information that is hard to master. In a study for Cognition, Connor Diemand-Yauman, Daniel Oppenheimer and Erikka Vaughan found that information in hard-to-read fonts was better remembered than information transmitted in easier fonts.”

    So, if you want us to retain stuff on your blog, Terry, make the fonts more arduous! LOL! (sorry, just had to go for that one)


  7. […] Laughlin has talked about mindful practice, and reminds learners with the DVD to be consciously aware of what they are […]

  8. […] Immersion Swimming founder Terry McLaughlin, in his article “Mindful Swimming Transforms the Brain,” reports on a study at Mass General Hospital. […]

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