Growing a Super Mind

05/17/2016 08:05 am ET Updated May 18, 2017

I have now been practicing Transcendental Meditation (TM) for eight years. My meditation sessions, 20 minutes twice a day, are often the most joyful times of my day, as I retreat into some deep part of myself where something good happens every time I meditate. I could describe it in terms of soothing alpha waves, fluxing over the prefrontal parts of my brain, where decisions and judgments are made; or increased brainwave coherence -- EEG patterns suggesting that different regions of the brain are cooperating better with one another. And these electrical effects do in fact occur during a TM session. But what I want to describe here are the amazing subjective effects of TM on the mind -- the expansion of consciousness, and the benefits that follow.

I wrote about TM previously in my book Transcendence, in which I explored the well-documented benefits of TM on physical and psychological health. The salutary effects of TM on blood pressure and cardiovascular function are well documented. In fact, the American Heart Association recently specifically endorsed TM as an alternative and complementary treatment for hypertension. Two studies suggest that TM decreases the likelihood of heart attack and stroke in people at risk. Besides these physical benefits, there is evidence that TM reduces anxiety and the effects of stress. I detailed these effects of TM in Transcendence, and thought I had said everything I had to say on the matter. That might have been true at the time, but as I continued to meditate, it was no longer so. New insights that arose from my personal experience and the reports of my patients to whom I had recommended TM led me to my latest book, Super Mind: How to Boost Performance and Live a Richer and Happier Life through Transcendental Meditation (Tarcher Perigree, May 17, 2016).

It took me a while to realize why I must write this new book -- that each TM session confers some benefit to the brain, and these effects are cumulative. Some people experience them within a few days of learning to meditate. For others, like me, it takes a little longer. For a dramatic example of what just a single meditation session can do for the brain, consider the following excerpt from Super Mind, which describes an event in the life of the luminous actress and author Cameron Diaz.

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The house was packed at the upscale Urban Zen in New York City, where Cameron Diaz was guest of honor at an event hosted by the David Lynch Foundation. Looking as radiant as ever, Diaz, a regular TM practitioner, was dressed casually in black, her blond hair swept across her cheek, as she engaged warmly with the audience about her experiences with TM - such as this one:

The house was packed at the upscale Urban Zen in New York City, where Cameron Diaz was guest of honor at an event hosted by the David Lynch Foundation. Looking as radiant as ever, Diaz, a regular TM practitioner, was dressed casually in black, her blond hair swept across her cheek, as she engaged warmly with the audience about her experiences with TM-- such as this one:

It was about ninety degrees in the Valley, at the Los Angeles Zoo

parking lot, under a tent, in a car, under lights, with the windows

up and no air-conditioning. It was about a thousand degrees in the car. And I had a monologue and I couldn't remember my lines -- lines that I knew. I knew I knew them. I'd said them a million times, and I couldn't access them. They're completely lost in . . . wherever they go. And I realized all of a sudden, I went, "No, I need twenty-five minutes. I just need twenty- five minutes." I ran back to my trailer and I rebooted. I did my twenty- minute meditation. And I came back to the car and I could see all those poor grip guys -- they're all sweating, holding heavy equipment. They're looking at me like, "I hate you. Get your lines right, woman, so we can get out of here." I mean really like the evil eye. And I didn't want to let them down, and I wanted to be able to do my lines. But after I had gone back to my trailer and rebooted, I came back and I nailed it. I was like, Done, thank you very much. And we were out of there, I have to say, in like twenty minutes.

Diaz held the audience at Urban Zen spellbound as she described the power of TM as a technique for mining memory.

Her description of retrieving her lost lines is at once foreign (After all, how many of us have been on a movie set at the Los Angeles Zoo?) and scarily familiar. How often have you searched for a word, telephone number, or the first line of a familiar poem, only to find that it is . . . sometimes there and . . . sometimes not. We are left asking: where did it go and how can we bring it back?

Diaz's story also resonates because most of us have a sense that our brains hold a vast storehouse of buried treasure, and that if we could only unearth it more efficiently, we'd be far better off. It is this sense, perhaps, that has led to the urban myth (thoroughly debunked) that we use only 10 percent of our brains (though many are the self- help tomes that promise to unlock the missing 90 percent for the price of a few lattes). Although these percentages seem silly to anyone with even a modest knowledge of the brain, the idea contains a germ of truth that has perhaps given traction to the myth: we do have untapped potential, so perhaps we can be smarter than we think.

Although nobody can say for sure why a person forgets something at one moment, then remembers it later, we do know that stress can affect memory in ways both good and bad, and we have some ideas about the underlying brain structures at work. In fact, once again our old friend the prefrontal cortex (PFC) appears to be involved. Studies in animals have shown that specific neurochemical pathways, when activated by excess stress, cause profound impairment of the PFC1. Specifically, too much dopamine and norepinephrine are implicated. By reducing stress, TM may lower the concentrations of these two key neurotransmitters in the PFC, thereby improving cognitive functions -- such as remembering lost lines in a movie script.

This effect of improved brain function when stress is reduced may remind some of you of the so-called inverted U-shaped curve, which shows how small amounts of stress or anxiety can boost performance but large amounts can make it worse. If you consider the declining limb of the inverted U (that part of the curve where anxiety is increasing but performance is decreasing), it is easy to see how TM could decrease stress and reduce key neurotransmitters in the PFC, thereby making the brain work better.

Whatever brain mechanisms were at work on that memorable day at the LA Zoo, we will never know. But the bottom line is that twenty minutes of TM restored Cameron Diaz's memory rapidly and completely. She had instinctively reached for the right remedy, and it worked.

In Super Mind I feature many superperformers, who find that their meditation practice helps them expand their mental faculties to peak levels. Iconic movie director Martin Scorsese routinely meditates in the morning and credits this practice with helping him to organize and prioritize his whirlwind days. Likewise, Jerry Seinfeld, who has been meditating for over 40 years acknowledges the energy that his practice gives him, which has enabled him to stay active in the exhausting life of a stand-up comic, while many of his contemporaries have packed it in. As a final example, my friend Ray Dalio, the founder of the biggest hedge fund in the world, Bridgewater Associates, and a decades-long meditator, attributes much of his legendary success to his meditation.

But the expansion of consciousness and the growth of the Super Mind is by no means the exclusive province of the rich and famous. In Super Mind you will meet ordinary people who have had extraordinary experiences that grow over time. As a psychiatrist of many years standing, I have taken great pleasure in seeing that happen to friends, acquaintances -- and myself.

Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D. is a psychiatrist and author of Super Mind His website is www.normanrosenthal.com

Excerpted with permission from SUPER MIND by Norman E. Rosenthal, MD, from TarcherPerigee, a division of Penguin Random House. Copyright 2016, Norman Rosenthal.