Page 4 of 5
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.