But first let’s talk about some guiding principles when looking at science research,
Here at Science Meditations we’re going to have a motto about scientific research:
One experiment doesn’t prove anything but it might suggest something.
So when we look at a particular experiment, we shouldn’t just believe it’s the last word on the topic being investigated. It’s only one science team’s attempt to answer a question they were interested in. A different science team might choose to answer the question with a different type of experiment or they just might choose to formulate the question in a completely different way! Hence, our motto,
One experiment doesn’t prove anything but it might suggest something.
We’ll keep this in mind while looking at the studies examining the effect of meditation on attention.
What Happens in a Science Meditation Experiment?
Let’s talk about what typically happens in a science experiment. Usually researches recruit a bunch volunteers for a meditation experiment. Then they divide them into three groups.
- The first group does the meditation being investigated.
- The second group does something else that calms the mind, such as a relaxation exercise.
- The third group is put on a waiting list for the meditation training but they get tested exactly the same way as the two other groups. They get tested on the same attention/concentration/focus tasks. This
thirdgroup, that doesn’t do any meditation, is there to make sure the results are not due to random chance or maybe something other than meditation or relaxation training.
If the third, untrained, group improves their attention/concentration/focus the same as the other two groups, then clearly the meditation training isn’t having any effect. Something else is going on.
Maybe the room the testing is being done in is really calming. Or maybe all it takes to improve
We would never know something else was going on if we didn’t have this third group, the control group as it’s called, that doesn’t get any training. This third group allows for the
So three groups: meditators, relaxers, and those who do nothing. All three get tested the same way.
How Are Subjects Tested During
an Meditation Study?
This raises the next question, how are experimental subjects being tested for attention? What’s the test they’re trying to get good at? There are hundreds of psychological tests experimenters use, so the testing is quite varied. But there are some tests that are more commonly used than others. One of the most famous and most popular
This test is based on the Stroop effect which happens when people try to name the colour a word is written in. Let’s say we have a series of words printed in various
- The word bat is printed in red ink,
- The word ball is printed in green ink
- The word glove is printed in purple ink.
Our task is to look at those words and name the
But now let’s say we take the same sequence of
- The word green is printed in red
- The word red is printed in green
- The word blue is printed in purple.
What happens? Most of us will get a little confused by the words that are names of
Along comes a meditation researcher and they ask the question if meditating regularly helps us get less confused by the contrast of the word name being in
The particular test used to measure attention varies from experiment to experiment but the general structure of the experiment is more or less the same. Some attention tests will involve pattern recognition or number counting or word recall but they’re mostly testing attention and cognitive processing.
Three Caveats About Science Research and Meditation
- Caveat 1: Each study focuses on a particular type of meditation. The results from one study may not reflect what happens when a different type of meditation is used.
- Caveat 2: Each study is looking at a particular group of people. There might be something special about the small group in the study that made them more (or less) responsive to meditation.
- Caveat 3: Does what happens in a scientific lab environment reflect what happens in the real world? In other words, is the meditation experience in a study a good representation of how people would normally meditate in the real world? And are the attention tests used in a lab setting an accurate measure of how attention works? Because if it’s not, then the results are not really
meaningfulto real worldexperience.
Okay, with those three caveats in mind, equipped with our motto,
One experiment doesn’t prove anything but it might suggest something.
let’s take a look at some experiments.
Effects of meditation on attention processes
Investigated the effects of transcendental meditation (TM) on attention processes (attentional capacity, cognitive flexibility, cognitive style) and whether effects were transitory or stable. Ss were 100 female college students. The experimental group included 50 Ss who meditated regularly; 50 Ss who did meditate were the control group. Results of the Star Counting Test indicate that meditators showed greater attention regulation soon after meditation than non-meditators. Meditators’ attention regulation was better soon after TM than on days not meditating. Meditators’ Stroop Colour and Word Test performance was better than non-meditators’ (time and error components). Tested on a non-meditating day, meditators’ performance was better than that of non-meditators only on the error component. There was no significant difference between meditators’ performance soon after and without meditation. On the Group Embedded Figures Test, meditators performed better than non-meditators tested soon after meditation and when they did not meditate; there was no significant difference between performance soon after and without TM. It is concluded that regular TM improves attention processes, a change that seems stable in some processes and transitory in others. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)
Rani, N. J., & Rao, P. V. K. (2000). Effects of meditation on attention processes. Journal of Indian Psychology, 18(1-2), 52-60.
Does Mindfulness Meditation Enhance Attention? A Randomized Controlled Trial
Mindfulness-based interventions have been incorporated into a variety of psychotherapies. Attentional disruptions are common in many mental disorders, and it seems generally accepted that practicing mindfulness enhances attention. We tested the hypothesis that mindfulness training would enhance four components of attention: sustained vigilance, concentration, inhibition of distraction, and executive control. A randomized three-group design included: (1) a mindfulness meditation group, (2) a progressive muscle relaxation group to control for effects of physical relaxation on attention, (3) a wait-listed group to control for practice effects of repeated measures. Fifty-three community adults were randomly assigned to one of these groups. Forty-five participants completed the 4-week program. After training and 4 weeks of twice-daily practice, the mindfulness group demonstrated significantly greater discriminability on a signal detection task than did the other groups. Significant improvements in sustained attention were found following mindfulness meditation, which did not appear to be mediated by relaxation or practice effects. Performances on measures of concentration and inhibition of distraction did not support the hypothesis. These results partially support current considerations of mindfulness meditation to enhance attention.
Semple, R.J. Mindfulness (2010) 1: 121. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-010-0017-2
Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation
Recent studies suggest that months to years of intensive and systematic meditation training can improve attention. However, the lengthy training required has made it difficult to use random assignment of participants to conditions to confirm these findings. This article shows that a group randomly assigned to 5 days of meditation practice with the integrative body–mind training method shows significantly better attention and control of stress than a similarly chosen control group given relaxation training. The training method comes from traditional Chinese medicine and incorporates aspects of other meditation and mindfulness training. Compared with the control group, the experimental group of 40 undergraduate Chinese students given 5 days of 20-min integrative training showed greater improvement in conflict scores on the Attention Network Test, lower anxiety, depression, anger, and fatigue, and higher vigor on the Profile of Mood States scale, a significant decrease in stress-related cortisol, and an increase in immunoreactivity. These results provide a convenient method for studying the influence of meditation training by using experimental and control methods similar to those used to test drugs or other interventions.
Yi-Yuan Tang, Yinghua Ma, Junhong Wang, Yaxin Fan, Shigang Feng, QilinLu, Qingbao Yu, Danni Sui, Mary K. Rothbart, Ming Fan, Michael I. PosnerProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Oct 2007, 104 (43) 17152-17156; DOI:10.1073/pnas.0707678104
Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention
Mindfulness is defined as paying attention in the present moment. We investigate the hypothesis that mindfulness training may alter or enhance specific aspects of attention. We examined three functionally and neuroanatomically distinct but overlapping attentional subsystems: alerting, orienting, and conflict monitoring. Functioning of each subsystem was indexed by performance on the Attention Network Test (ANT; Fan, McCandliss, Sommer, Raz, & Posner, 2002). Two types of mindfulness training (MT) programs were examined, and behavioral testing was conducted on participants before (Time 1) and after (Time 2) training. One training group consisted of individuals naive to mindfulness techniques who participated in an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course that emphasized the development of concentrative meditation skills. The other training group consisted of individuals experienced in concentrative meditation techniques who participated in a 1-month intensive mindfulness retreat. Performance of these groups was compared with that of control participants who were meditation naive and received no MT. At Time 1, the participants in the retreat group demonstrated improved conflict monitoring performance relative to those in the MBSR and control groups. At Time 2, the participants in the MBSR course demonstrated significantly improved orienting in comparison with the control and retreat participants. In contrast, the participants in the retreat group demonstrated altered performance on the alerting component, with improvements in exogenous stimulus detection in comparison with the control and MBSR participants. The groups did not differ in conflict monitoring performance at Time 2. These results suggest that mindfulness training may improve attention-related behavioral responses by enhancing functioning of specific subcomponents of attention. Whereas participation in the MBSR course improved the ability to endogenously orient attention, retreat participation appeared to allow for the development and emergence of receptive attentional skills, which improved exogenous alerting-related process.
Jha, A.P., Krompinger, J. & Baime, M.J. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience (2007) 7: 109. https://doi.org/10.3758/CABN.7.2.109
Letting Go: Mindfulness and Negative Automatic Thinking
Cognitive theorists describe mindfulness as a form of attention-awareness in which thoughts can be observed in non-judging, de-centered, and non-attached ways. However, empirical research has not examined associations between mindfulness and responses to negative automatic thoughts, such as the ability to let go of negative cognition. In the first study reported in this article, measures of dispositional mindfulness were negatively correlated with negative thought frequency and perceptions of the ability to let go of negative thoughts in an unselected student sample. In the second study reported, these associations were replicated in a treatment-seeking student sample, where participation in a mindfulness meditation-based clinical intervention was shown to be associated with decreases in both frequency and perceptions of difficulty in letting-go of negative automatic thoughts. Theoretical and clinical implications are discussed.
Frewen, P.A., Evans, E.M., Maraj, N. et al. Cogn Ther Res (2008) 32: 758. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-007-9142-1
Effects of meditation on attention
This study investigated effects of meditation on attention. Predictions were generated from the hypothesis that meditation leads to an increased ability to focus attention and ignore distractions. Specifically, it was predicted that meditation experience would be positively correlated with the ability to focus attention, but that the particular form of meditation practiced would not significantly influence results. Participants were meditators varying in degree of meditation experience and type of meditation practiced, and non-meditating controls. Four experiments compared the performance of these participants on attentional tasks. A Stroop task was used in Experiment 1. Results indicated that meditation experience, as gauged by minutes of meditation/day but not by years of meditation practice, led to a decrease in Stroop interference. A global-local letter identification task was used in Experiment 2. No effect of meditation experience on specific measures of interference was found, but meditation experience, as measured by minutes of meditation/day, was correlated with superior overall task performance. Experiment 3 tested the hypothesis that meditation experience would be positively correlated with performance on a change detection task if the task required focusing attention on the present moment, but that, in the case of a task where focusing on the present would actually hinder performance, meditation would have a deleterious effect. The data provided some support for this prediction, but there are difficulties in the interpretation of results in this experiment. Experiment 4, an attentional blink experiment, indicated no effects of meditation on a task requiring extremely rapid shifts of visual attention. Overall, this set of studies suggests that meditation experience does correlate positively with the ability to focus attention, but only when meditation experience is measured by minutes of meditation/day, not by total number of years of practice. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)
Chan, D. P. (2004). Effects of meditation on attention. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 64(9-B), 4645.