Here’s an academic literature review that looks at whether meditation is helpful in an academic environment. It concludes that there is substantial evidence that meditation is useful for the student in general, and little or no evidence that it is not. However, it also says that there has not yet been enough studies to conclude that meditation will directly improve test results.
This is interesting in the context of our current situation regarding teaching Buddhism in schools in NSW.
More fundamentally, however, it speaks to the basic Buddhist tenet that meditation leads to wisdom. Most of our scientific study of meditation to date has focussed on the emotional side – meditation leads to peace and happiness. The Buddha was perhaps the first teacher to stress how the emotions and intelligence were interconnected and needed to support each other. This contrasts with the tendency in western thought to make ‘emotion’ and ‘reason’ into enemies.
Strangely enough, this dichotomy has been imported into modernist Buddhism as the split between samatha and vipassana, a split which, I believe, was a product of traditional Buddhist cultures’ response to the western colonial influence.
Recent psychology has moved away from this, and now it is generally accepted that emotion and reason support each other. Or at least, they do in a healthy mind: an opposition or disconnect between the two is a sign of illness.
Studies like this one show that a peaceful, happy mind from meditation helps develop and support essential cognitive functions: memory, clear thinking, imagination. And we could all do with a bit more of that!