A critical part of attention (and working memory capacity) is being able to ignore distraction. There has been growing evidence that meditation training (in particular mindfulness meditation) helps develop attentional control, and that this can start to happen very quickly.
- after an eight-week course that included up to 30 minutes of daily meditation, novices improved their ability to quickly and accurately move and focus attention.
- three months of rigorous training in Vipassana meditation improved attentional control.
- after eight weeks of Mindfulness Training, Marine reservists during pre-deployment showed increased working memory capacity and decreased negative mood (this training also included concrete applications for the operational environment and information and skills about stress, trauma and resilience in the body).
- after a mere four sessions of 20 minutes, students produced a significant improvement in critical cognitive skills — and a dramatic improvement when conditions became more stressful (provided by increasingly challenging time-constraints).
There seem to be several factors involved in these improvements: better control of brainwaves; increased gray matter density in some brain regions; improved white-matter connectivity.
Thus, after ten weeks of Transcendental Meditation (TM) practice, students showed significant changes in brainwave patterns during meditation compared to eyes-closed rest for the controls. These changes reflected greater coherence and power in brainwave activity in areas that overlap with the default mode network (the brain’s ‘resting state’). Similarly, after an eight-week mindfulness meditation program, participants had better control of alpha brainwaves. Relatedly, perhaps, experienced Zen meditators have shown that, after interruptions designed to mimic spontaneous thoughts, they could bring activity in most regions of the default mode network back to baseline faster than non-meditators.
Thus, after an 8-week mindfulness meditation program, participants showed increased grey-matter density in the left hippocampus , posterior cingulate cortex, temporo-parietal junction , and cerebellum , as well as decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala . Similarly, another study found experienced meditators showed significantly larger volumes of the right hippocampus and the right orbitofrontal cortex, and to a lesser extent the right thalamus and the left inferior temporal gyrus.
These areas of the brain are all closely linked to emotion, and may explain meditators' improved ability in regulating their emotions.
Thus, long-term meditators showed pronounced differences in white-matter connectivity between their brains and those of age-matched controls, meaning that meditators’ brains were better able to quickly relay electrical signals. The brain regions linked by these white-matter tracts include many of those mentioned as showing increased gray matter density. Another study found that a mere 11 hours of meditation training (IBMT) produced measurable changes in the integrity and efficiency of white matter in the corona radiata (which links to the anterior cingulate cortex, an area where attention and emotion are thought to be integrated).
It’s an interesting question, the extent to which poor attentional control is a reflection of poor emotional regulation. Obviously there is more to distractability than that, but emotion and attention are clearly inextricably entwined. So, for example, a pilot study involving 10 middle school students with ADHD found that those who participated in twice-daily 10 minute sessions of Transcendental Meditation for three months showed a dramatic reduction in stress and anxiety and improvements in ADHD symptoms and executive function.
The effects of emotion regulation are of course wider than the effects on attention. Another domain they impact is that of decision-making. A study involving experienced Buddhist meditators found that they used different brain regions than controls when making decisions in a ‘fairness’ game. The differences reflected less input from emotional reactions and more emphasis on the actual benefits.
Similarly, brain scans taken while experienced and novice meditators meditated found that periodic bursts of disturbing noise had less effect on brain areas involved in emotion and decision-making for experienced meditators compared to novices — and very experienced meditators (at least 40,000 hours of experience) showed hardly any activity in these areas at all.
Attention is also entwined with perception, so it’s also interesting to observe that several studies have found improved visual perception attendant on meditation training and/or experience. Thus, participants attending a three-month meditation retreat, showed significant improvements in making fine visual distinctions, and ability to sustain attention.
But such benefits may depend on the style of meditation. A study involving experienced practitioners of two styles of meditation (Deity Yoga (DY) and Open Presence (OP)) found that DY meditators were dramatically better at mental rotation and visual memory tasks compared to OP practitioners and controls (and only if they were given the tasks immediately after meditating). Similarly, a study involving Tibetan Buddhist monks found that, during "one-point" meditation, monks were significantly better at maintaining their focus on one image, when two different images were presented to each eye. This superior attentional control was not found during compassion-oriented meditation. However, even under normal conditions the monks showed longer stable perception compared to meditation-naïve control subjects. And three months of intense training in Vipassana meditation produced an improvement in the ability of participants to detect the second of two visual signals half a second apart (the size of the improvement was linked to reduced brain activity to the first target — which was still detected with the same level of accuracy). Similarly, three months of intensive meditation training reduced variability in attentional processing of target tones.
You can read about these studies below in more detail. Three studies were mentioned here without having appeared in the news reports:
Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Rawlings, N. B., Francis, A. D., Greischar, L. L., & Davidson, R. J. (2009). Mental Training Enhances Attentional Stability: Neural and Behavioral Evidence. J. Neurosci., 29(42), 13418-13427. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1614-09.2009
Tang, Y.-Y., Lu, Q., Geng, X., Stein, E. A., Yang, Y., & Posner, M. I. (2010). Short-term meditation induces white matter changes in the anterior cingulate. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(35), 15649 -15652. doi:10.1073/pnas.1011043107
Travis, F., Haaga, D., Hagelin, J., Tanner, M., Arenander, A., Nidich, S., Gaylord-King, C., et al. (2010). A self-referential default brain state: patterns of coherence, power, and eLORETA sources during eyes-closed rest and Transcendental Meditation practice. Cognitive Processing, 11(1), 21-30. doi:10.1007/s10339-009-0343-2