Meditation and AttentivenessAlerted by an article in the May 8 edition of the New York Times, I took myself over to PLoSBiology, an online peer-reviewed journal published by the Public Library of Science, to read a report about research concerning the link between training in meditation and the ability to allocate attention efficiently.
The research was carried out at the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, directed by Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of WisconsinMadison. As explained in a synopsis written by Rachel Jones, the research shows that
intensive training in meditation can alter the way in which the brain allocates attentional resources to important stimuli, allowing people to improve their performance on a demanding visual task.Specifically, Davidson and his colleagues investigated
whether volunteers who received three months of intensive training in a particular type of meditation, known as Vipassana meditation, would allocate attentional resources more efficiently and therefore show enhanced performance on the attentional blink task, a task that taps into similar skills used during training without directly involving meditation [see below]. Vipassana meditation encourages “non-reactive awareness”—a state of mind in which individuals cultivate awareness of stimuli without judgments or affective responses to those stimuli.The "attentional blink" is the inability to pay attention to a second stimulus if it appears within a half second of a first stimulus. In the attentional blink task,
volunteers were asked to identify two “target” stimuli—for example, two particular numbers—in a stream of rapidly presented “non-target” stimuli—for example, letters—which are irrelevant to the task.The results were that the participants who received intensive training in Vipassana meditation uniformly improved in their ability to detect the second target, while only 70% of a control group that received much less intense training improved.
Note that the volunteers were not meditating during the task itself. This indicates that
intensive mental training can produce lasting and significant improvements in the efficient distribution of attentional resources among competing stimuli, even when individuals are not actively using the techniques they have learned.My conclusion from this research is that it is reasonable for people to try to boost their productivity by undertaking training in Vipassana-style meditation.