We often hear about gaining greater focus through mindfulness practice. A new research review sheds light on some of the nuances regarding how improvements in attention are measured.
Regular meditation practice can improve attention, according to researchers. But how is it that practices like meditation hone our focus?
Seeking to expand our knowledge around this question, researchers at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, examined the existing research on the relationship between meditation practice and changes in attention. They reviewed published studies of healthy adults who practiced focused attention (FA), open monitoring (OM), or both. Focused attention (FA) meditation involves being able to keep one’s attention fixed on a particular object, such as the breath. Open monitoring (OM) meditation emphasizes staying in the present moment while paying attention to one’s experience, without allowing the mind to get lost in thought.
Meditation Improves Attention—in Some Cases
To evaluate the effects of these forms of meditation on different aspects of attention, data from 87 studies were categorized into attentional brain networks like those responsible for focusing, orienting, or blocking out distractions, and/or executive control domains like shifting attention, or inhibiting a response.
Their investigation revealed that experienced practitioners of FA, OM or both, or those assigned to a meditation practice as part of an intervention had better attention skills than nonmeditators. Meditators were generally better than nonmeditators at maintaining focus, paying attention to multiple objects at once, and ignoring distractions. Being aware of instances when attention had drifted and “updating” one’s attention (that is, orienting the mind back to the object of focus) was found to be more developed only in those practicing FA.
Meditators were generally better than nonmeditators at maintaining focus, paying attention to multiple objects at once, and ignoring distractions.
Importantly, these findings were not universal. In many cases, whether benefits were found depended on which aspect of attention was measured, often referred to as a method effect. For example, meditation appeared to lead to greater gains in tasks measuring attentional accuracy, but not those measuring reaction time. This means that which task was used to measure attention, or which aspect of attention was assessed, had some bearing on whether meditation-related improvements were found.
As is common in reviews and meta-analyses of mindfulness-based studies, there is considerable variability in the types of meditation utilized, practice requirements (e.g. regular time commitment and format), duration of program or intervention, and the ways in which outcomes are assessed. This makes it very difficult to draw definitive conclusions about what works, why, and under what conditions.
Findings from this review reinforce that meditation can improve attention in general; however, additional research is needed to truly understand why and how this occurs.
Amishi Jha is a neuroscientist and associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami. She’s the author of a forthcoming book (2021, Harper One) on the science of attention. Her research focuses on the brain bases of attention, working memory, and mindfulness-based training. With grants from…