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Increased Attention

Another area of recent research on the effects of meditation deals with the role of meditation in enhancing attentional performance. Whether our practice focuses on the breath, a sound, or a thought (for instance, a repeated phrase or a visualized image), attention is always central to meditation. That may seem ironic, because there is nothing like a long meditation session to demonstrate how difficult it is to control the attention. Countless distractions arise, seemingly out of nowhere, and hijack our awareness despite our best intentions. Especially if you are relatively new to meditation, you might think your practice is actually making you more distracted. Research, however, has shown that the distractions are actually less common, but that with practice you are more likely to notice them because your attention works better. You notice more of everything, including wandering and distractedness. Laboratory testing can measure exactly how the mind becomes stronger with practice, and it demonstrates significant improvements over a relatively brief period of time.

Amishi Jha is a pioneer in this area of investigation. She has applied sophisticated computer-based testing to measure attentional performance in meditators. Jha performed this type of testing on a group of medical and nursing students at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia before and after an eight-week mindfulness-based training course. The class was designed to teach students to use meditation to manage stress, enhance communication, and cultivate empathy. (I also worked on this research and designed and taught the meditation course.)

After only eight weeks of training, testing revealed that the students who were taught to meditate could intentionally direct and focus their attention more quickly than a matched group of untrained students. Another study used similar tests to investigate the effects of a monthlong intensive group meditation retreat at Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado. These participants had considerably more practice experience than the students, and practiced for eight to ten hours each day during the retreat.

Interestingly, the more experienced retreat participants did not demonstrate the increase in the capacity to direct and focus attention to an object seen in the novice meditators; they were pretty good at that when the retreat started. Instead, the retreat participants had a change in the nature of their attention. Their awareness became much more open and alert. This finding seems to describe the transition from focused mindfulness to broader and deeper insight and awareness described in traditional meditation teachings. As expected, the retreat participants also had substantially less mental wandering, and more insight into wandering and distraction when it occurred.

Other testing from Jha’s lab has demonstrated that meditation improves working (or short-term) memory as well as the ability to resist distraction. This has very significant implications for improving our ability to accomplish our goals in everyday life. She has found that even very short periods of regular practice, as little as twelve minutes a day, are associated with significant improvements in working memory. More practice is associated with better results, including both improved accuracy and reduced wandering.


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