Activities throughout our days require undisturbed minutes (even hours) of concentration. Obvious examples can include boring tasks in the workplace or when navigating traffic, where critical focus is necessary for success and safety. But perhaps not surprisingly, people can have a hard time keeping their attention on important activities for even short lengths of time.
In the laboratory, researchers have studied our poor ability to sustain attention by examining how performance declines when someone has to maintain focus and perform a repetitive task for a long time. In wisdom traditions like Buddhism, such limits on our attention span have long been acknowledged, and at the same time, these traditions recognize that our ability to direct and maintain concentration is an important part of mental and spiritual well-being. For example, only when we can sustain our attention can we recognize and regulate our thoughts or emotions. For this reason, many contemplative traditions promote mental training through meditation practice as a means of improving our capacity to stay focused.
Our lab recently conducted a research study to investigate whether a month of intensive meditation would improve a practitioner’s performance on a difficult cognitive task that required sustained concentration for 30 minutes without a break. We were interested in whether subjective feelings of deep concentration on the part of the meditators would be related to their performance on this cognitive test.
We recruited 30 people who were participating in a monthlong vipassana (insight) meditation retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. A second group of individuals, serving as a control group, were recruited from the local Spirit Rock community. The control group had previous experience with meditation but did not undergo intensive meditation training during the study.
Before and after the meditation retreat, each person in the study took a test on a laptop computer where they viewed the screen intently as lines appeared one at a time. Each participant was asked to respond with the mouse whenever they saw long lines (which were common). Rarely, a shorter line would appear, and the volunteer had to withhold their mouse click for that line. The test lasted 30 minutes and was cognitively demanding. After participants completed this test, they filled out a questionnaire about their experiences (e.g., how much their mind wandered, etc.). The control group underwent the same testing process.
We found that participants were better at withholding their responses to the short lines after training than they had been before the training. Specifically, they were better able to distinguish the short lines from the long lines and were able to stop themselves from responding when they noticed a rare short line. Importantly, performance did not decline as much over the 30-minute task as it had prior to training, suggesting that the experience of the monthlong meditation retreat better equipped participants to sustain attention over time. When we examined the speed of their mouse clicks, we also found that participants were much steadier and consistent following training. These findings confirmed the personal experiences related by the meditators, who reported that they felt more focused during the test. In contrast, the performance of the comparison group did not change during the period between testing.
This study, published in a special issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, adds to a growing body of evidence — both neural and behavioral — that suggests one’s attention may be improved through mental training, and that meditation may improve people’s ability to keep attention stable and focused when they need to concentrate throughout their daily lives.