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Book cover of Into the Magic Shop by Dr. James DotyI just finished reading a great book called Into the Magic Shop by Dr. James Doty, a neurosurgeon who explores the mysteries of the brain and tells his story of learning at a young age the importance of calming your inner voice and unlocking the desires of the heart.

As I was reading about how mindfulness helped Dr. Doty to memorize huge amounts of information in medical school, the following passage jumped out at me:

A 2013 study by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that focused-attention meditation training improved memory, focus, and overall cognitive function in undergraduate students after just two weeks of practice, as measured by improved GRE scores and other memory and focus tests.*

Wow. That’s significant.

Intrigued, I decided to dig up the study itself and see what it entailed. If you want to read the full study yourself, you can download it HERE or read the excerpt from PubMed HERE.

The premise behind the study is that a wandering mind can lead to a host of negative effects, from reduced productivity to rumination to cycles of negative thoughts. And like a wandering mind at work, a wandering mind at school – or, worse, during major tests like the GRE – can be a particular problem. So the question is, can mindfulness, which has been around for millennia, be an antidote for mind-wandering and its unwanted effects — and have tangible benefits like improved concentration on standardized tests like the GRE?

To test that, the researchers randomly assigned 48 undergrads to take a course for two weeks in either mindfulness or nutrition. The students’ short-term memory was tested a week before and after the training periods. To train their verbal abilities, students completed the verbal-reasoning section of the GRE. Sure enough, after completing the two-week course, participants who had the mindfulness training improved considerably more on the GRE tests and the working memory tasks as compared to the kids who had the nutrition training. Their minds also wandered less during these tasks, which the authors believe may explain their improved performance. Incredibly, the improvement was the equivalent, they say, to a 16 percentile point increase in GRE score.

So how about that? Who wouldn’t like a 16-percentile bump in his/her GRE score just by learning to calm the mind?!

Now, I’m not a meditation expert. I’ve always tried to take time each day to pray and reflect, but like everyone, my life gets busy and I don’t always take the necessary time. Since reading this book, however, I’ve tried to be more intentional about setting aside 10-15 minutes each day to just sit, control my breathing, and calm my mind (that’s all “meditation” is, after all).

If you’d like to take these study results to heart yourself as you pursue a higher GRE score, I’m sure there are plenty of mindfulness classes you can find out there. But if you’re a beginner, like me, you can start simple and still get great results. Here’s a “Mindfulness 101” cheat sheet I pulled from another book that I also recently read called 10% Happier by Dan Harris:

Meditation study GRE shows how mindfulness improves GRE scoreBasic Mindfulness Meditation

  1. Sit comfortably. You don’t have to twist yourself into a cross-legged position — unless you want to, of course. You can just sit in a chair. (You can also stand up or lie down, although the latter can sometimes result in an unintentional nap.) Whatever your position, you should keep your spine straight, but don’t strain.
  2. Feel your breath. Pick a spot: nose, belly, or chest. Really try to feel the in-breath and then the out-breath.
  3. This one is the key: Every time you get lost in thought — which you will, thousands of times — gently return to the breath. I cannot stress strongly enough that forgiving yourself and starting over is the whole game. As my friend and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg has written, “Beginning again and again is the actual practice, not a problem to overcome so that one day we can come to the ‘real’ meditation.”
  4. Try to meditate every day. Regularity is more important than duration.

We’re all looking for a competitive edge, especially on an important exam like the GRE where every extra point makes a difference. Certainly you should still invest in a GRE prep course to learn the content and strategies that are necessary for getting right answers on challenging questions. But a big part of scoring well is also winning what I call the “inner game” of the GRE, which is to say managing your test-day nerves, staying calm so that you can recall the necessary information, and overall performing your best when it’s go-time. It makes perfect sense to me that the self-control learned through meditation can help with this. Why not give it a try? It may just be the missing piece of the puzzle for you.

Oh, and let us know how it goes. Leave your comments/questions below. I can’t wait to hear your story!

* From Into the Magic Shop by Dr. James R. Doty, M.D. page 180.