July 18, 2010

Sunday, July 18, 2010
New research has studied the effects of Buddhist meditation on attention span when focusing on a specific task that requires a person to distinguish small differences on a computer screen.
"You 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, Davis.
A group of 60 people were hand-picked from readers of Buddhist-themed magazines or via word of mouth. Half of the participants were selected to attend a 3 month meditation retreat in Colorado with the study’s co-author and meditation teacher/Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace, while the remainder awaited their retreat. Every subject had previously attended a minimum of three 5-10 day meditation retreats in the past.
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.
The assignment, which lasted about 30 minutes, was quite boring making focusing a difficult task. MacLean explains that this type of task is ideal for assessing meditation training since meditation is not about peaceful relaxation; rather it is more demanding to be so focused without distraction.

Evidently, subjects improved their ability to distinguish short lines from the long ones with more meditation training. The study suggests that this occurs because of the participants are more capable of sustaining their attention, which in turn improved their performance on the task at hand. “This improvement persisted five months after the retreat, particularly for people who continued to meditate every day.”

A few obvious questions come to mind regarding the reliability and validity of this study. How did the participants meditate? How did eyesight affect results of the study? Are results similar for participants that have no background in meditation? Have participants improved because of increased ability to focus via meditation or because they’ve practiced the same task again and again? Was the task always the same or did it vary? How did the improvements for those that continued to meditate after the retreat compare to those that did not?

Although the researchers have studied this same group of participants in many studies, this experiment is the most comprehensive study of intensive meditation to date. “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.”

Meditation Helps Increase Attention Span

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