By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“We practice meditation in the end not to become great meditators but to have a different life. As we deepen the skills of concentration, mindfulness, and compassion, we find we have less stress, more fulfillment, more insight, and vastly more happiness. We transform our lives.” – Sharon Salzberg
In modern everyday life, we are constantly bombarded with a myriad of stimuli, from music, movies, TV, traffic noise, games, telephone calls, texts, emails, tweets, posts, etc. The generations who have grown up in the midst of this cacophony, claim to have developed multitasking skills, such that they can simultaneously work with multiple tasks and sources of information. At first glance they appear to have developed useful skills that the older generation can only marvel at. But, upon closer inspection of the abilities of the multitaskers, it has been found that they actually have impaired attentional abilities and are more easily distracted from what they’re doing. In other words, the multitasking has damaged their ability to focus on any one thing.
Mindfulness training may be an antidote to the impaired attention and distractibility of the multitaskers. One of the primary effects of meditation training is an improvement in the ability to pay attention to the task at hand and ignore interfering stimuli. This is an important consequence of meditation training and produces improvements in thinking, reasoning, and creativity. Hence it would seem that mindfulness training would strengthen the exact capacities that are weakened by chronic multitasking.
There are, however, a wide variety of meditation techniques and it is not known which work best for improving attention and executive function. In focused attention meditation, the individual practices paying attention to a single meditation object, learns to filter out distracting stimuli, including thoughts, and learns to stay focused on the present moment, filtering out thoughts centered around the past or future. On the other hand, in open monitoring meditation, the individual opens up awareness to everything that’s being experienced regardless of its origin. These include bodily sensations, external stimuli, and even thoughts. The meditator just observes these stimuli and lets them arise and fall away without paying them any further attention.
In today’s Research News article “Attentional orienting and executive control are affected by different types of meditation practice.” See:
or see summary below. Tsai and Chou recruited meditators who practiced focused attention meditation, or who practiced open monitoring meditation, and meditation naive controls. They measured mindfulness and then compared the three groups for their performance on a visual attention task. The task measured three separate components of attention, alerting, orienting, and executive control (filtering irrelevant stimuli). As expected, the two meditation groups had significantly higher levels of mindfulness than the control group. In regards to attention, the meditators demonstrated superior ability to orient and to filter out irrelevant stimuli (executive control). They found that the higher the level of mindfulness, the better the meditators were in executive control. Finally, they found that the open monitoring meditators were significantly superior to the focused meditators in their ability to orient to the attentional stimulus.
In a second experiment Tsai and Chou manipulate meditation practice to see if the practice caused the improvements in attention. They recruited meditation naïve college students who were randomly assigned to receive either 3 months of focused attention meditation training or no training. The students were measured on the attentional task both before and after the 3-month training. They found that the focused attention meditation produced a significant improvement in the ability to filter out irrelevant stimuli (executive control) and the higher the level of mindfulness, the better the meditators were in executive control. Thus they demonstrated that meditation practice causes improvements in the attentional ability to ignore irrelevant stimuli.
The results suggest the obvious that practicing paying attention improves paying attention. But, less obvious, is that the practice improves the abilities to shift attention when needed, orienting, and to not be distracted by things that are not relevant to the task at hand, executive function. This latter ability appears to be better developed by open monitoring meditation than by focused attention meditation. This would seem counter intuitive as one would think that part of practicing focusing would be to learn to ignore non-focal stimuli. In fact, it did in comparison to non-meditators. But, surprisingly, open monitoring meditation was superior. It may be that practicing just allowing things to be as they are without letting them attract attention may be the better way to learn to ignore distractors. Being used to not responding appears to make the individual better at not responding when needed.
So, get more attentive with meditation.
“The practice of insight meditation revolves around the art of meditative attention. Its basic tool is ‘bare’ or primary attention which uncovers or lays bare things as they really are. In this way, a non-reactive, unconditioned awareness is acquired that leads to insight knowledge.” – Ven Pannyavaro
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Tsai MH, Chou WL. Attentional orienting and executive control are affected by different types of meditation practice. Conscious Cogn. 2016 Oct 3;46:110-126. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2016.09.020.
- We studied the relationship between meditationskills and functions of attention.
- Focused attention meditation only improved execution control function.
- Open monitoring meditation improved execution control and orientation functions.
Several studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of meditation on attention. The present study investigated the relationship between focused attention (FA) and open monitoring (OM) meditation skills and the various functions of attention. In Experiment 1, we executed theattention network test and compared the performance of experts on dandao meditation with that of ordinary people on this test. The results indicated that the experts specializing in OM meditation demonstrated greater attentional orienting ability compared with those specializing in FA meditation and the control group. In addition, both expert groups registered improvements in their executive control abilities compared with the control group. In Experiment 2, we trained beginners in FA meditation for 3months. The results showed that the experimental group exhibited significantly enhanced executive control ability. We infer that FA meditation skills promote executive control function and OM meditation skills promote both executive control and attentional orienting functions.