In 1890, William James in his textbook Principles of Psychology, states that attention is “the very root of judement, character and will.” Perhaps, the most elusive thing for us humans is the ability to control our attention. This is unfortunate because almost every impressive human achievement is, at heart, a feat of attention. Art, science, technology — you name it — someone, somewhere had to concentrate, and concentrate hard. We are seemingly fascinated by the randomest of things and just can’t keep at something for very long. Whatever can we do to lengthen our attention? Cognitive psycholoigist Katherine MacLean along with 12 other coworkers had the same question in mind.
The Nature of Attention
The ability to focus one’s attention while resisting distraction is critical for adaptive, goal-directed behaviour (MacLean & colleagues, 2010). In order to be successful in a task, one must maintain high attentional power and keep utmost acuity in doing so. But there’s a catch: a phenomenon called vigilance decrement or the reduced perceptual sensitivity with increased time on a task (Parasuraman, 1986; as cited in MacLean & colleagues, 2010) occurs. Now, the question remains: can we do something to have the best of both worlds? That is, have maximal attention on a single task, but still maintain high perceptual accuracy along? MacLean and her colleagues enter the picture offering a possible, age-old method that we may have overlooked all along: meditation.
MacLean and her colleagues conducted their study by recruiting participants through magazine and online advertisements. Participants were randomly assigned either to receive training first (n = 30) or to serve as waiting-list controls and receive training second (n = 30). The meditational training had participants live in a remote mountain setting (Shambhala Mountain Center, Red Feather Lakes, CO) for 3 months and received meditation instruction from B.A. Wallace in Shamatha meditation (an act of concentration on a particular object or idea), as well as complementary meditation practices that use imagery and concentration to develop compassion and kindness toward others. Each day, participants attended two sessions that included group meditation and discussion, practiced in solitude (M = 5 hr/day of Shamatha, 45 min/day of complementary practices). Outcomes were assessed at three points during each retreat: before the start of the retreat (pretraining), halfway through the retreat (midtraining), and at the end of the retreat (posttraining)—using a test of sustained visual attention that produced significant decrements in perceptual sensitivity before training. Their study came up with an interesting conclusion: training produced improvements in visual discrimination that were linked to increases in perceptual sensitivity and improved vigilance during sustained visual attention. Participants got better at discriminating the short lines as the training went on. This improvement in perception made it easier to sustain attention, so they also improved their task performance over a long period of time. In fact, this improvement persisted five months after the retreat, particularly for people who continued to meditate every day!
Meditation & Attention
This study connecting meditation and attention is not new and definitely not the first of its kind. Several studies investigates improved attention and its many facets along with meditation: Stanley, Forte, Cavanagh, & Carter (2005) found that among Tibetan monks (with numerous hours of meditational practice), their binocular rivalry test (or the index of shiftiness of attention) is significantly lower; Jha, Krompinger & Baime (2007) reports that those who had received meditational training (even as low as 30 mins a day for 8 weeks) were better at focusing their attention than the control group; short term training or just 20 minutes instruction every day for five days (Tang et al., 2007), participants demonstrated improved attention compared to a control group, along with other benefits such as lower levels of stress and higher energy levels; meditation seems to increase our attention bandwidth and reduce attentional blink (Slagter, Lutz, Greischar, Francis, Nieuwenhuis, et al., 2007); other studies have also suggested that meditation can benefit motivation, cognition, emotional intelligence and may even sharpen awareness to such an extent that we can control our dreams (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006), among others.
At this day and age, we are bombarded everyday with stress, deadlines, relational problems, and what-have-yous. It is easy to forget how to just sit-down, calm your mind and forget about things even for just a moment. It is very uplifting to see studies like the one conducted by MacLean, and other researchers where keeping attention, maintaining high acuity, and collecting your mind is as simple as closing your eyes and focusing on your breath. It’s also a damn cheap method in order to increase your attention, focus and achieve your goals! I think I’ll employ this technique to get my papers done, ace that exam, and achieve the things I want in life. Woah! I’ll never look at meditation the same way again 🙂
Now where to buy a yoga mat…
Association for Psychological Science (2010, July 16). Meditation helps increase attention span. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 26, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2010/07/100714121737.htm
Carter, O., Presti, D., Callistemon, C., Liu, G. B., Ungerer, Y. & Pettigrew, J. D. (2005c) Meditation Alters Perceptual Rivalry in Tibetan Buddhist Monks. Current Biol 15(11): R412-3
Jha, A. P., Krompinger, J., & Baime, M. J. (2007). Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience, 7(2), 109-119.
MacLean, K., Ferrer, E., Wallace, B., Mangun, G., Saron, C., Aichele, S., et al. (2010). Intensive Meditation Training Improves Perceptual Discrimination and Sustained Attention. Psychological Science, 21(6), 829-839.
Slagter, H.A., Lutz, A., Greischar, L.L., Francis, A.D., Nieuwenhuis, S, et al. (2007) Mental Training Affects Distribution of Limited Brain Resources . PLoS Biol5(6): e138. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050138\
Tang, Y., Ma, Y., Posner, M., Wang, J., Fan, Y., Feng, S., et al. (2007). Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104(43), 17152-17156.
Walsh, R., & Shapiro, S. (2006). The meeting of meditative disciplines and western psychology: A mutually enriching dialogue. American Psychologist, 61(3), 227-239.