How meditation may improve multitasking and attention

September, 2012

Three recent studies show that meditation training reduces the stress of multitasking and reduces task-switching, that it improves white matter efficiency, and that the improved executive control may be largely to do with better emotional awareness and regulation.

Meditation may improve multitasking

I recently reported that developing skill at video action games doesn’t seem to improve general multitasking ability, but perhaps another approach might be more successful. Meditation has, of course, been garnering growing evidence that it can help improve attentional control. A new study extends that research to multitasking in a realistic work setting.

The study involved three groups of 12-15 female human resource managers, of whom one group received eight weeks of mindfulness-based meditation training, another received eight weeks of body relaxation training, and another initially received no training (control), before receiving the mindfulness training after the eight weeks.

Before and after each eight-week period, the participants were given a stressful test of their multitasking abilities, requiring them to use email, calendars, instant-messaging, telephone and word-processing tools to perform common office tasks (scheduling a meeting; finding a free conference room; writing a draft announcement of the meeting, eating snacks and drinking water, writing a memo proposing a creative agenda item for the meeting). Necessary information came from emails, instant messages, telephone calls, and knocks on the door. The participants had 20 minutes to complete the tasks.

The meditation group reported lower levels of stress during the multitasking test compared to the control and relaxation groups. They also spent more time on tasks and switched tasks less often, while taking no longer to complete the overall job than the others. Both meditation and relaxation groups showed improved memory for the tasks they were performing.

After the control group underwent the meditation training, their results matched those of the meditation group.

The meditation training emphasized:

  • control of attentional focus
  • focusing attention in the present moment or task
  • switching focus
  • breath and body awareness.

The relaxation training emphasized progressive tensing and relaxing of major muscle groups, aided by relaxation imagery.

It's interesting that overall time on task didn't change (the researchers remarked that the meditators didn't take any longer, but of course most of us would be looking for it to become shorter!), but I wouldn't read too much into it. The task was relatively brief. It would be interesting to see the effects over the course of, say, a day. Nor did the study look at how well the tasks were done.

But it is, of course, important that meditation training reduced task-switching and stress. Whether it also has a postitive effect on overall time and quality of work is a question for another day.

IBMT improves white matter efficiency

A recent imaging study has found that four weeks of a form of mindfulness meditation called integrative body–mind training (IBMT) improved white matter efficiency in areas surrounding the anterior cingulate cortex, compared to controls given relaxation training.

The anterior cingulate is part of the brain network related to self-regulation. Deficits in activation in this part of the brain have been associated with attention deficit disorder, dementia, depression, schizophrenia, and other disorders.

Using the data from a 2010 study involving 45 U.S. college students, and another involving 68 Chinese students, researchers found that axon density (one factor in white matter efficiency) had improved after two weeks, but not myelin formation. After a month (about 11 hours of meditation), both had improved. Mood improved by two weeks.

Previous studies involving computer-based training for improving working memory have found changes in myelination, but not axon density.

Meditators’ better cognitive control may be rooted in emotional regulation

Previous work has found that people who engage in meditation show higher levels of executive control on laboratory tasks.

An electrical signal called the Error Related Negativity (ERN) occurs in the brain within 100 ms of an error being committed. When meditators and non-meditators were given the Stroop Test, meditators not only tended to do better on the test, but their ERNs were stronger.

The interesting thing about this is that the best performers were those who scored highest on emotional acceptance. Mindful awareness was less important. It’s suggested that meditators may be able to control their behavior better not because of their sharper focus, but because they are more aware of their emotions and regulate them better.

Something to think about!

Reference: 

Levy, D. M., Wobbrock, J. O., Kaszniak, A. W., & Ostergren, M. (2012). The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation Training on Multitasking in a High-Stress Information Environment, 45–52. Full text available at http://faculty.washington.edu/wobbrock/pubs/gi-12.02.pdf

[3051] Tang, Y. - Y., Lu Q., Fan M., Yang Y., & Posner M. I. (2012).  Mechanisms of white matter changes induced by meditation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 109(26), 10570 - 10574.

[3052] Teper, R., & Inzlicht M. (2012).  Meditation, mindfulness and executive control: the importance of emotional acceptance and brain-based performance monitoring. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Recent posts at Mynd

A study involving 97 healthy older adults (65-89) has found that those with the “Alzheimer’s gene” (APOe4) who didn’t...

An Indian study involving 648 dementia patients, of whom 391 were bilingual, has found that, overall, bilingual patients developed dementia 4.5...

A study, involving 371 patients with mild cognitive impairment...

A study involving 206 spousal and adult children caregivers of dementia sufferers (mostly Alzheimer’s) has found that about 84% of...

A study involving 254 people with dementia living at home has found that 99% of people with dementia and 97% of their caregivers had one or more...

A new U.S. study suggests that Alzheimer's disease and other dementias are markedly under-reported on death certificates and medical records....

It’s often argued that telling people that they carry genes increasing their risk of Alzheimer’s will simply upset them to no purpose...

11 new genetic susceptibility factors for Alzheimer’s identified

The largest international study ever conducted on Alzheimer's...

Understanding a protein's role in familial Alzheimer's...

A brain imaging study of 162 healthy babies (2-25 months) has found that those who carried the ApoE4...

A gene linked to Alzheimer's has been linked to brain changes in childhood. This gene, SORL1, has two connections to Alzheimer’s: it...

Analysis of data from 237 patients with mild cognitive impairment...

Two studies indicate that young people carrying the “Alzheimer’s gene” (ApoE4...

Analysis of data from more than 8,000 people, most of them older than 60, has revealed that, among the 5,000 people initially tested cognitively...

Analysis of 700 subjects from the Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative has revealed a genetic mutation (rs4728029) that’s associated...

Analysis of brain scans and cognitive scores of 64 older adults from the NIA's Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (average age 76) has found...