How Mantras and Memorization Benefit the Brain February 01, 2018 18:30

I spent nearly a week memorizing a new mantra. Most of the mantras I work with are in Sanskrit, but I came across a Tibetan mantra that resonated with me. The Guru Rinpoche mantra is only eight lines long, but learning it was slow-going and challenging. I don't read the Tibetan language (same is true for Sanskrit), so memorizing a transliterated text is a lot like learning a language within another language, and as a visual learner, it offered a new set of challenges for me. The sounds were new. The combinations of syllables were clumsy and awkward at first. From the outset, memorizing eight short lines seemed very daunting. 

I work as a tutor at a local high school, so in between student sessions, I listened to an audio recording of a lama chanting the mantra over and over again (thank goodness for YouTube). My commute home is usually 30-45 minutes long, depending on traffic. Each afternoon I chanted two lines of the mantra while driving home. On Monday, I worked with the first two lines. Tuesday, the second pair, etc The chanting was very slow at first. There were long pauses and hesitations as I worked to find the right sounds in the right order. I had to remain intensely focused, not only on driving, but on reciting each line over and over again. Slowly, over the course of the week, I was able to chant the entire mantra. It required time, effort, and painstaking dedication, but it was worth it. Not only do I have another sound tool to play with in my energetic repertoire and practice, but I did something good for my brain, too. Here are some of the benefits of memorization:

* Mental Flexibility and Agility

Just as consistent, challenging exercise benefits the body, memorization is a useful way to stimulate the brain. Functioning like "mental gymnastics," memorization makes the brain more quick, agile, and flexible.

* Improved Neural Plasticity

Medical research has found that rote memorization benefits the hippocampal foundation, which is crucial for episodic and spatial memory in humans. In a recent Irish study of participants aged 55-70, researchers concluded that repeated activation of memory structures in the brain promote neural plasticity in the aging brain. In other words, we need to use it, or we're going to lose it.

* Improved Focus and Creativity

Working memory involves storing, focusing attention on, and manipulating information for a relatively short period of time. According to Paula Fiet of Weber State University, working memory is essential for learning to occur. Completing exercises (such as memorizing a new mantra) that are aimed at building short-term memory benefits our capacity to learn and to focus. 

Working memory is also important for creativity.  Dutch researchers have concluded that those who learn to focus and develop their working memory through memorization tasks can free their mind in order to pursue other creative tasks.

* Delayed Cognitive Decline

Researchers from the National Institute on Health and Aging (NIHA) found that adults who engaged in short bursts of memory training maintained higher cognitive function delays. Memorization and other memory training exercises can delay cognitive decline for 7-14 years. So, memorizing mantras can help you stay sharp for years to come.

Over the next forty days or so, I plan to work with this new Guru Rinpoche mantra along with a mala (not while driving, though :). I like the idea of starting the New Year with a new mantra and a new sadhana. I'm looking forward to seeing where this mantra will take me in my practice--how it will benefit my subtle body as well as my mind and body. I'll be sure to keep you posted. In the meantime, find a mantra that resonates with you, and commit it to memory. 



the data mentioned in this post came from the following source:

*"In Praise of Memorization: 10  Proven Brain Benefits" (