No Place Like Om: Meditation training puts oomph into attention

Intensive meditation training does more than foster inner peace and relaxation. Mental practice of this type boosts control over attention and expands a person’s ability to notice rapidly presented items, at least during a laboratory test.

The new results demonstrate that mental resources devoted to attention can be amplified through mental training, say psychologist Richard J. Davidson of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and his colleagues.

Davidson’s team studied a phenomenon known as the attentional blink. Because visual perception requires time and effort, paying close attention to one object flashed on a computer screen often causes a person to overlook a second object presented within the next half second. Scientists suspect that attention momentarily shuts down as the first image is perceived. During that attentional blink, the second image sneaks by unnoticed.

“The previous practice of meditation improves performance on this task,” Davidson says. “Attention capabilities can be enhanced through learning.”

His team studied 17 volunteers, ages 22 to 64, who attended a 3-month-long meditation retreat. They spent most of each day practicing Vipassana meditation, which focuses on reducing mental distractions and heightening sensory awareness.

Before and after the retreat, participants performed a task in which they looked for one or two numbers mixed into a series of letters flashed on a computer screen. Electrodes placed on each person’s scalp measured neural activity on the brain’s surface during the task. In some trials, two numbers appeared less than one-half second apart.

Before meditation training, volunteers reported seeing the second of two rapidly presented numbers about 60 percent of the time. After training, they detected the second number, on average, 80 percent of the time, Davidson’s group reports in the June PLoS Biology.

The participants with the greatest meditation-related improvement detected the second number about 90 percent of the time. They showed less neural activity as they viewed the first number than they had before the training.

By devoting less of their neural resources to perceiving the first number, participants could attend to a number presented a fraction of a second later, Davidson posits.

Another 23 adults completed a 1-hour meditation course and then meditated for 20 minutes daily for 1 week before taking their first attention test. Three months later, recipients of the bare-bones training repeated the week of meditation before retaking the test. Performance on the attentional-blink task rose from 60 percent to 70 percent correct. However, no sign of decreased neural activity appeared.

The new findings support the view that intensive meditation training boosts the efficiency of attention-related mental operations, remarks psychologist Clifford Saron of the University of California, Davis.

Saron directs an ongoing project in which some participants learn meditation techniques at a 3-month retreat led by a Buddhist monk. The researchers plan to analyze whether the meditation training influences attention, emotional regulation, and various brain measures.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.