• Robb G. Best

Why Meditation Might be More Important than Intelligence

When was the last time you had a three-foot tamping rod blow through your prefrontal cortex, taking with it about a half teacupful of brain matter?

If your name is Phineas Gage, it was 164 years and 53 days ago, and it happened at 4:30 in the afternoon while you were setting explosives for the Burlington railroad in Vermont. Miraculously, in defiance of Victorian medical science and common sense, Gage lived. His personality, however, was forever altered. This is one of the most cited neuroscience cases out there because it tells us a few key things about the nature of the prefrontal cortex, that processing center in your skull just above your eyebrows.

The prefrontal cortex does a lot of cool stuff. It is, among other things, home to your willpower. Neuroscientists frequently say we have one brain and two minds. By this they mean we have a processing center for emotions, the part of the brain that reaches for the glazed donut, and another mind, the part of the brain that reminds you that glazed donuts are devilishly clever balls of unhealthy calories. Which part of your PFC wins depends on a lot of things.

When we think about the ability to resist the input from the emotional mind (that donut craving) we call on willpower. Your ability to demonstrate willpower is the best predictor of success we have. It's more important than intelligence, skill, or wisdom. This is true across the board: careers, jobs, marriage, and even general happiness. It turns out willpower is a pretty big deal.

In The Willpower Instinct, Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal describes the mark Gage's accident left on him (besides the obvious one.) The once-affable upstanding citizen was scarcely recognizable. Gage was now prone to outbursts of temper; a one inch diameter pole through your head is a real mood killer. But it was more than that.

With the loss of a good portion of his prefrontal cortex, he turned into a raving manic, driven by desire and prone to fights and fits of obscenity. His damaged PFC mitigated his ability to demonstrate restraint. The tamping iron had robbed him of more than just a half teacupful of brain matter; it had taken his willpower.

Like Phineas, all of us from time to time experience a little of what neuroscientists refer to euphemistically as 'temporary brain damage.' It happens whenever we overimbibe with alcohol, or deprive ourselves of sleep. Both situations divert energy from the PFC and reduce our level of executive control.

The good news is that willpower in an individual can be practiced and strengthened. Just as a weight lifter can increase muscle mass, you can literally increase you PFC's size and will power effectiveness with meditation. Daily breath-focused meditation, even for just five minutes, has been demonstrated to improve will power. In fact, it has an interesting side effect: many people who meditate as described experience up to an additional hour of sleep at night. This additional hour of rest has all kinds of health benefits, including lowering your general level of anxiety.

Those of you not into the idea of meditation can take solace in the fact that regular exercise accomplishes the same thing. Exercise and meditation together are like the Lennon and McCartney of happy brain music. And once your will power increases, it often spills over into other areas of everyday living, making it easier to tackle those tasks that tend to fall under the category of procrastination––like writing a weekly blog for instance.

Just saying.

So there is really no excuse not to carpe diem. Unless of course you're Phineas Gage and are still adjusting to your new brain piercing. Then again, if that's the case, I suspect every day you're still alive is a good day. On the other hand, probably not so great for his friends and family, because putting up with his uncontrolled tirades must have taken a ton of willpower.


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