Updated: May 3
What is the single quality that separates the most successful anatomy and physiology students from everyone else? Is it intelligence or IQ? Absolutely not. I personally don’t find much value in describing people in terms of “smart.” I think this word is essentially meaningless, and telling yourself you aren’t smart enough to succeed after doing poorly on a test or assignment is a self-defeating behavior that should be avoided.
So if it isn’t intelligence what is it? Having worked with hundreds of students as an instructor and many more as a private tutor, I’m convinced that the most important characteristic that will allow you to do well in anatomy and physiology (and likely many other subjects) is the ability to concentrate. You should think of this as good news because this is something you can work on and improve.
Unfortunately, this is an example of a quality which is essential for student success but receives no attention in a standard university curriculum. Students are given assignments and assessments but are just left to their own devices and not equipped with the skills needed to complete them. While some people have more of an innate ability to concentrate than others, anyone can take steps to boost their ability to concentrate. This is a critical life skill that should not be taken for granted, and I maintain that skills like these should be taught at the university level if the goal is to encourage student growth and success in school and beyond.
THE BENEFITS OF CONCENTRATION
I want to talk a bit about the benefits of concentration and what happens when you’re unable to maintain your concentration. If you can’t concentrate on your lecture or concentrate when you read and study, then you won’t be able to retain the information you’re trying to learn. I’ve even worked with students who struggle to concentrate over the course of a private tutoring session. It’s important to realize that you can’t absorb the material passively and it’s not just going to implant itself in your memory because you hear or read the words. Remembering information is the result of an active process that depends on your ability to concentrate.
Have you ever had the experience of getting to the end of a sentence or a paragraph and not having any idea what you just read? Maybe even after reading it multiple times? All of us have experienced that at some point, and this is a classic demonstration of what happens when we lose our ability to maintain concentration. Although our eyes are moving and seeing the words, they don’t stick in our memory because the critical contribution of concentration is missing.
We definitely have some big obstacles to overcome if we want to improve our concentration in our current culture. Information is delivered to us in a way that is purposely designed to reduce our ability to concentrate. Social media encourages us to scroll through an infinite series of very short clips and snippets. We can’t even focus our attention on a person delivering the news as the screen is littered with graphics and scrolling messages. On top of all that we’re all very busy and especially if you’re a college student you’re likely to be on the go constantly while being pulled in many different directions. If only there were a practice designed to calm and focus the mind, one whose effectiveness has been proven over thousands of years and which requires no purchases or equipment.
A CURE TO COUNTERACT THE FRANTIC PACE OF LIFE?
The answer may be a bit unexpected, but meditation is the perfect antidote to the frantic pace of modern life. Meditation doesn’t require a large investment in terms of either time or money, and you can get the full benefits of the practice in just 10 minutes a day. Earlier I acknowledged that you’re very busy, but even so I expect you can make room for 10 minutes to help improve yourself. Whether that’s 10 minutes of using social media or browsing the internet, or half of an episode of a comedy show. That time will pay for itself many times over as boosting your ability to concentrate will save you time in the long run (you won’t have to be reading that paragraph over and over again!).
First let’s clear up some misconceptions about meditation. Although the practice is associated with some religious traditions, it isn’t fundamentally tied to any religious viewpoint and there’s no need to worry about meditation conflicting with your religious views or traditions. It can be used as a technique to bring order to the mind absent of any specific connections to a deity or religion.
The practice of meditation is not exclusive to monks wearing robes sitting in remote temples high up a forested mountainside. Here’s a list of many well-known individuals who have used meditation to help them achieve their goals and here’s another. Some of these names may be surprising to you, but this only goes to show how common this practice is and how beneficial it can be.
From a scientific perspective, numerous studies have demonstrated tangible benefits to mediation. This article lists several of these benefits and includes many links to studies that demonstrated these effects. Of course I should mention some of the anatomical and physiological effects of meditation which include reducing the inflammatory response, reducing blood pressure, reducing stress hormone levels, decreasing metabolic rate, improving blood flow to the brain, reducing blood cholesterol, and changes in patterns of brain activity among many others.
HOW TO MEDITATE
So now I’ve convinced you that meditation is worthwhile, but you may be asking yourself “how do I go about meditating?” There are some very simple basic meditation practices you can start doing today. I say they’re simple, but once you start trying them you’ll see that although the instructions are simple, they’re surprisingly challenging to follow. But don’t be discouraged – just like with any other skill, you’ll improve with practice.
Before attempting any type of mediation it’s important to put yourself in an appropriate place in terms of both your physical and mental environment. That means finding a quiet place where you can be free of any distractions – no noise, no phones, and no notifications. You must also be committed to devoting all of your attention to meditation and leaving all of your concerns behind. Don’t worry – they’ll be there for you once you’re done!
One simple thing you can do is to just pay attention to your breathing. This is a simple but powerful approach, and I’ve read accounts of people who claim to have done nothing but follow their breathing for a year or more. Sit on the floor with your legs crossed and back straight, using a cushion or pillow if you need this to help you sit comfortably. Simply breathe in while slowly counting to 4, hold your breath while slowly counting to 4, exhale slowly while counting to 8, and repeat without thinking of anything else. That’s it! Mediation can be as simple as that.
Another simple technique is to imagine yourself as a diver figurine that you often see in fish tanks. Try to just follow your breathing and not think of anything – imagine any thought that you have as a bubble rising to the top of the fish tank. Let it float up to the top and disappear when it reaches the surface. You don’t judge yourself or indulge the thought, you just observe it as it floats away. Visualization is very useful, and in a variation of following your breathing you can try to picture yourself sitting where you are and the air that you breathe in is one color and the air that you breathe out is another. Try here and here for some other great resources for beginners. There are also many apps and podcasts you can use to help you develop your skill with meditation.
What’s really important is to not get frustrated or upset at yourself when thoughts pop into your mind. This is a very normal part of meditation, and especially at first you’ll think of something almost as soon as you start. This helps to show how difficult it is to sit calmly and prevent your mind from wandering. This is what it’s all about, and as you get better at controlling the flow of your thoughts, you’ll be developing the concentration skills that you can apply directly to your studies of anatomy and physiology along with many other subjects.
I hope I’ve convinced you that concentration is king when it comes to studying anatomy and physiology. We could take this further and say that concentration is the key to success in any field; we can think of athletics and musical performance as examples of pursuits we may have tried at some point for which success depends very heavily on the ability to concentrate. Meditation isn’t the only way to improve your concentration — actively listening to certain types of instrumental music can help you to develop this skill as well — but it’s one that’s been around for centuries and which has been proven to be very powerful. The potential benefits for an individual are enormous both as a student and a person. So why not give it a try?