Improve Attention with Even Very Brief Meditation
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
One of the primary effects of mindfulness 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 mindfulness training and produces improvements in thinking, reasoning, and creativity. The importance of heightened attentional ability to the individual’s ability to navigate the demands of complex modern life cannot be overstated. It helps at work, in relationships, or simply driving a car.
There is evidence that mindfulness training improves attention by altering the brain. It appears That mindfulness training increases the size, connectivity, and activity of areas of the brain that are involved in paying attention. A common method to study the activity of the nervous system is to measure the electrical signal at the scalp above brain regions. Changes in this activity are measurable with mindfulness training. One method to observe attentional processing in the brain is to measure the changes in the electrical activity that occur in response to specific stimuli. These are called event-related potentials or ERPs. The signal following a stimulus changes over time. The fluctuations of the signal after specific periods of time are thought to measure different aspects of the nervous system’s processing of the stimulus.
The P3b response in the evoked potential (ERP) is a positive going electrical response occurring between a 2.5 to 5 tenths of a second following the target stimulus presentation. The P3b (distractor positivity) component is thought to reflect an attentional suppression process involved in preventing shifts in attention. The N2 response is a negative electrical change that occurs around 2 tenths of a second following the target stimulus presentation. The N2 response has been implicated in conflict detection and executive attention. These components of the evoked potential can be used to assess the nature of attentional processing before and after meditation, reflecting how meditation might improve attention.
In today’s Research News article “Brief Mindfulness Meditation Improves Attention in Novices: Evidence From ERPs and Moderation by Neuroticism.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6088366/ ), Norris and colleagues recruited undergraduate students for two experiments to examine the ability of a very brief meditation experience to affect attentional abilities.
In the first study they had the students listen to a 10-minute recording either of mindfulness meditation instructions or a reading of a National Geographic article about giant sequoias. The participants then performed a flanker task, a measure of executive cognitive function. In this task the participant has to respond to the direction of an arrow, when it is surrounded by distracting arrows that point either in the same (congruent) or opposite (incongruent) directions. Afterwards they completed the Big 5 Personality Inventory. They found that the participants who listened to the meditation recording were significantly more accurate on the flanker task on incongruent trials. This suggests that a brief meditation improves cognitive attentional ability to screen out irrelevant material.
In the second study students listened to recordings like in study 1 and performed an attention network task. It includes the flanker task but also includes measures of different types of attention, including alerting, orienting, and executive control. While performing the task the electroencephalogram (EEG) was recorded and the event related potential recorded in response to the presentation of the task. They found that the participants who listened to the meditation recording were significantly faster in responding on the attentional network task. They found that the low neuroticism participants who listened to the meditation recording had significantly larger N2 ERP responses and significantly smaller P3b ERP responses during incongruent (conflict) task than controls. These changes in the ERP suggests that after meditation, the brain functions better in allocating attentional resources to the task at hand.
These results are interesting and suggest that even a single brief meditation experience can alter both behavioral and EEG measures of attention. They suggest that even a 10-minute meditation enhances attentional mechanisms. This extends the literature on the effectiveness of mindfulness training on attention, demonstrating that even 10 minutes of meditation exposure can improve the individual’s ability to attend to and process information in the present environment.
So, improve attention with even very brief meditation.
“intensive and continued meditation practice is associated with enduring improvements in sustained attention and response inhibition, with the potential to alter longitudinal trajectories of cognitive change across a person’s life,” – Anthony Zanesco
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Norris, C. J., Creem, D., Hendler, R., & Kober, H. (2018). Brief Mindfulness Meditation Improves Attention in Novices: Evidence From ERPs and Moderation by Neuroticism. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12, 315. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00315
Past research has found that mindfulness meditation training improves executive attention. Event-related potentials (ERPs) have indicated that this effect could be driven by more efficient allocation of resources on demanding attentional tasks, such as the Flanker Task and the Attention Network Test (ANT). However, it is not clear whether these changes depend on long-term practice. In two studies, we sought to investigate the effects of a brief, 10-min meditation session on attention in novice meditators, compared to a control activity. We also tested moderation by individual differences in neuroticism and the possible underlying neural mechanisms driving these effects, using ERPs. In Study 1, participants randomly assigned to listen to a 10-min meditation tape had better accuracy on incongruent trials on a Flanker task, with no detriment in reaction times (RTs), indicating better allocation of resources. In Study 2, those assigned to listen to a meditation tape performed an ANT more quickly than control participants, with no detriment in performance. Neuroticism moderated both of these effects, and ERPs showed that those individuals lower in neuroticism who meditated for 10 min exhibited a larger N2 to incongruent trials compared to those who listened to a control tape; whereas those individuals higher in neuroticism did not. Together, our results support the hypothesis that even brief meditation improves allocation of attentional resources in some novices.