Helps Increase Attention Span
nearly impossible to pay attention to one thing for a long time.
a 2010 study looks at whether Buddhist meditation can improve a person's
ability to be attentive and finds that meditation training helps
people do better at focusing for a long time on a task that requires
them to distinguish small differences between things they see.
was inspired by work on Buddhist monks, who spend years training in
wonder if the mental skills, the calmness, the peace that they express,
if those things are a result of their very intensive training or
if they were just very special people to begin with," says
Katherine MacLean, who worked on the study as a graduate student
at the University of California at Davis. Her co-advisor, Clifford
Saron, did some research with monks decades ago and wanted to study
meditation by putting volunteers through intensive training and
seeing how it changes their mental abilities.
140 people applied to participate; they heard about it via word of
mouth and advertisements in Buddhist-themed magazines. Sixty were
selected for the study. A group of thirty people went on a meditation
retreat while the second group waited their turn; that meant the second
group served as a control for the first group. All of the participants
had been on at least three five-to-ten day meditation retreats before,
so they weren't new to the practice. They studied meditation for three
months at a retreat in Colorado with B. Alan Wallace, one of the study's
co-authors and a meditation teacher and Buddhist scholar.
took part in several experiments; results from one are published in
Psychological Science, a journal of the Association
for Psychological Science. At three points during the retreat, each
participant took a test on a computer to measure how well they could
make fine visual distinctions and sustain visual attention. They watched
a screen intently as lines flashed on it; most were of the same length,
but every now and then a shorter one would appear, and the volunteer
had to click the mouse in response.
got better at discriminating the short lines as the training went
on. This improvement in perception made it easier to sustain attention,
so they also improved their task performance over a long period of
time. This improvement persisted five months after the retreat, particularly
for people who continued to meditate every day.
lasted 30 minutes and was very demanding. "Because this task
is so boring and yet is also very neutral, it's kind of a perfect
index of meditation training," says MacLean. "People may
think meditation is something that makes you feel good and going on
a meditation retreat is like going on vacation, and you get to be
at peace with yourself. That's what people think until they try it.
Then you realize how challenging it is to just sit and observe something
without being distracted."
experiment is one of many that were done by Saron, MacLean and a team
of nearly 30 researchers with the same group of participants. It's
the most comprehensive study of intensive meditation to date, using
methods drawn from fields as diverse as molecular biology, neuroscience,
and anthropology. Future analyses of these same volunteers will look
at other mental abilities, such as how well people can regulate their
emotions and their general well-being.
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