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Meditation Training Affects Attention (Surprise!)

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

A friend forwarded me an article today from the Journal of Neuroscience that discusses experiments that show that meditation can alter brain function and the ability to train attention. This is something that meditators know subjectively but which has not been validated extensively by the scientific community.

I really enjoy that these kinds of studies are being done. I hope to eventually see a feedback loop develop between this kind of scientific work and the work of practitioners where each reinforces the other. I believe it is possible that scientists may discover the physiological basis for the meditation techniques that have been worked out, through trial, error, and experience, by meditators over the last few thousand years. This may even lead to improved meditation techniques eventually because with a more concrete understanding of what is happening in the brain, we may be able to develop more refined practices that use this knowledge.

Meditation training can enhance the stability of our attention through reducing cortical "noise"

Several groups collaborate to show that meditation training can can significantly affect attention and brain function.

Abstract:

The capacity to stabilize the content of attention over time varies among individuals, and its impairment is a hallmark of several mental illnesses. Impairments in sustained attention in patients with attention disorders have been associated with increased trial-to-trial variability in reaction time and event-related potential deficits during attention tasks. At present, it is unclear whether the ability to sustain attention and its underlying brain circuitry are transformable through training. Here, we show, with dichotic listening task performance and electroencephalography, that training attention, as cultivated by meditation, can improve the ability to sustain attention. Three months of intensive meditation training reduced variability in attentional processing of target tones, as indicated by both enhanced theta-band phase consistency of oscillatory neural responses over anterior brain areas and reduced reaction time variability. Furthermore, those individuals who showed the greatest increase in neural response consistency showed the largest decrease in behavioral response variability. Notably, we also observed reduced variability in neural processing, in particular in low-frequency bands, regardless of whether the deviant tone was attended or unattended. Focused attention meditation may thus affect both distracter and target processing, perhaps by enhancing entrainment of neuronal oscillations to sensory input rhythms, a mechanism important for controlling the content of attention. These novel findings highlight the mechanisms underlying focused attention meditation and support the notion that mental training can significantly affect attention and brain function.

The Journal of Neuroscience, October 21, 2009, 29(42):13418-13427; doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1614-09.2009 Mental Training Enhances Attentional Stability: Neural and Behavioral Evidence

You can read the paper here.