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The Neuroscience Behind Meditation

Sit Down and Shut Up

New Age mystics have been busy promising everything to the self-help hungry masses, popularizing pseudoscientific approaches that fall in and out of vogue faster than fashion trends. But one practice has moved back into the public spotlight in recent years that bears scientific examination, a method that’s been practiced across the world for over 2,000 years: meditation.

cause their thoughts to cease their aimless darting, developing focus and impulse resistance.

Though it’s often lumped in with the other New-Agey self-help ideas, neurological evidence indicates that meditation deserves a closer look. Take one trial reported on by Newsweek and conducted by a computer scientist and neuroscientist at the University of Arizona, for instance. In the trial, 45 participants were split into three groups. One group took eight weeks of body relaxation training, one group had no training whatsoever, and one group took “mindfulness- based meditation training.” Then they were tested with stressful multitasking before and after the eight-week period. The individuals in the meditation group were able to sustain their focus longer and reported feeling less stressed than both of the other groups.

So what’s actually happening here? Well, to put it simply, the meditators were actively changing the way their minds form connections. Our brains are constantly being molded and reshaped by our surroundings, often by things we are completely unaware of. Each time we impulsively follow a habit pattern, that reaction is etched into our brains more deeply. But when a person sits down to meditate, they begin to consciously reject these knee-jerk impulses. As Newsweek writer Zoe Schlanger puts it, “Learning how to interrupt one’s reaction pattern — and then doing that over and over — can reshape behavior.” It’s just like any other thing we practice over and over. As we repeat the process, we get better at it. It’s just that with meditation, practitioners are specifically working on their ability to deliberately

Research indicates that this “stillness of mind” can result in better attention, reduced susceptibility to addiction, and even “reduce the cognitive decline associated with normal aging,” according to one study published in the Neurobiology of Aging journal. “What you attend to drives your behavior and it determines your happiness,” writes London School of Economics scholar Paul Dolan. It just makes sense that learning to actively direct your attention should improve your quality of life — and the science backs it up. If you’re intrigued, check out apps like or buddhify or read “A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation” by Rod Meade Sperry — an excellent primer covering many approaches and philosophies.

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