Attention involves being able to not only focus on a target but also to screen out irrelevant stimuli. In our daily lives we are confronted simultaneously with a myriad of stimuli both within a sense, e.g. lots of different visual stimuli simultaneously present, but also across senses, e.g sights, sounds, smells, touches all simultaneously present. This creates quiet a daunting task for us to focus appropriately and not be distracted by all of the other stimuli present.
Laboratory research simplifies these situations to better discern what is actually occurring with attention. One method is to ask a person to detect a particular stimulus when it is presented in combination with a number of irrelevant stimuli, distractors. The characteristics of the distractors can be manipulated to discern the nature of the conflict that occurs to deflect attention.
Mindfulness practice is directed at improving attention. (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/17/mindfulness-improves-mental-health-via-two-factors/ and http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/17/overcome-attention-problems-with-mindfulness/). But, not all mindfulness practices approach attention in the same way. Focused meditation requires a meditator to pay strict attention to a particular stimulus and not respond to other stimuli (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/24/beginning-meditation-getting-started-3-breath-following-2/), while open monitoring meditation has the meditator simply let all stimuli drift in and out of awareness without thinking about, judging, of attempting to hold onto any of them. (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/25/beginning-meditation-getting-started-4-open-monitoring-meditation/). These two forms of meditation trainings would be expected to have different effects on attention.
Laboratory attention tasks may be able to differentiate the between the two forms of meditation’s effects on attentional processes. In today’s Research News article “Meditation-induced cognitive-control states regulate response-conflict adaptation: Evidence from trial-to-trial adjustments in the Simon task”
Colzato and colleagues test the effectiveness of focused meditation versus open monitoring meditation on the laboratory attention task called the Simon task. In the Simon task the individual is asked to press a key on the left if a stimulus is a particular color and a key on the right if the stimulus is another color. Competition is then set up by varying the position of the stimulus, either on the right or the left. Usually, when the position of the stimulus is opposite to the response key it takes longer to respond, indicating that the position was distracting attention.
Colzato and colleagues did not find a difference between the two meditation techniques on the Simon task as both groups showed delayed response times when the position of the stimulus and response were different. But, when the effect of one trial on the response on the next trial was analyzed, the focused meditation group showed much greater trial to trial fluctuations than the open monitoring meditation group. This suggests that learning to be open to all stimuli makes you less responsive to prior stimuli. On the other hand learning to focus on one stimulus makes changes more disruptive.
Hence, different meditation techniques prepare one differently for different tasks. Open monitoring meditation prepares one better for accepting varying stimuli while focused meditation prepares one better for shifting control from one mode to another.
Regardless, meditate to improve attentional mechanisms.
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies