It’s virtually impossible to pay attention to one thing for a long time. A recently conducted study reviewed the impact Buddhist meditation had on an individual’s s ability to be attentive and determined that meditation training helps people do better at focusing for a long an extended period of time on a task that requires them to distinguish small differences between things they see.
The research was inspired by work on Buddhist monks, who spend years training in meditation. “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. Her co-advisor, Clifford Saron, did some research with monks decades ago and wanted to study meditation by putting volunteers through intensive training and seeing how it changes their mental abilities.
Approximately 140 people sought to participate in the study. They’d learned about it via word of mouth and advertisements in Buddhist-themed magazines. Sixty were selected. A group of thirty people went on a meditation retreat while the second group waited their turn; that meant the second group served as a control for the first group. They had previously participated in at least three five-to-ten day meditation retreats before, so they weren’t novices. They studied meditation for three months at a retreat in Colorado with B. Alan Wallace, one of the study’s co-authors and a meditation teacher and Buddhist scholar.
They were involved in several experiments. The results from one are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. At three different times during the retreat, each participant took a test on a computer to evaluate how well they could make fine visual distinctions and maintain their 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.
During the course of the training the participants ability to discriminate the short lines improved. This perception improvement made it easier for them to maintain attention, so their performance of the task also improved over a long period of time. It also persisted five months after the retreat, especially for people who meditated on a daily basis.
The task lasted 30 minutes and was very demanding. “Because this task is so boring and yet is also very neutral, it’s kind of a perfect index of meditation training,” says MacLean. “People may think meditation is something that makes you feel good and going on a meditation retreat is like going on vacation, and you get to be at peace with yourself. That’s what people think until they try it. Then you realize how challenging it is to just sit and observe something without being distracted.”
Katherine MacLean, Clifford Saron, B. Alan Wallace et al. Intensive Meditation Training Improves Perceptual Discrimination and Sustained Attention. Psychological Science