A Question of Focus

Meditators often feel that their practice aids concentration. But do these subjective reports pan out in daily life?

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focusActivities 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.

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Meditation: It’s Not What You Think

Think you can’t meditate? Mind and Life’s resident neuroscientist explores some popular misconceptions surrounding meditation, and reasons to keep trying.

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DSC_0132_crop2When I explain to someone that I’m involved in research on meditation, it’s not uncommon for me to hear, “Oh, meditation—I tried that. I couldn’t do it.”

This response brings up a mix of emotions in me that is equal parts sadness and frustration, with a heaping dose of motivation on top.

Sadness because people have experienced meditation in a negative light and come to associate it with a sense of failure. Frustration because that association often stems from pervasive cultural misunderstandings about what meditation is (and how it should feel when you practice). And motivation: to change this misperception, so those who are interested can experience the benefits that accompany a meditation practice.

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