The Impact of Meditation on Attention

Excerpts from Roundtable: Meeting of the Minds, Tricycle Magazine, Spring 2005:

Richard Davidson: Our initial work certainly indicates that meditation changes brain function. One of our hopes now is that a broader range of scientists will be inspired to examine the potential impact of contemplative practice on different behavioral domains. One of our goals is to launch studies that look at the impact of meditation on attention and the brain systems that support it.

We’ve been talking with experts who do experiments in which, for example, a person is required to focus on a specific object and ignore distractions. One question is whether training in meditation facilitates one’s capacity to do this, and, if it does, which parts of the brain are being affected.

There are well-developed procedures in cognitive psychology for exploring such questions. The classic one is the Stroop Test. In one version of this test, the word “green” might be printed on a card in red, and the subject’s task would be to name the color in which the word was printed (red), ignoring the meaning of the word (green). Classically, people are slower in responding when the color of a word is inconsistent with the name of the word than when the two are the same: when the word “green” is printed in green, people are able to say “green” faster than when they’re looking at the word “green” printed in red. What this requires is that we inhibit our automatic response and focus our attention on the instructions given by the experimenter.

B. Alan Wallace: Shamatha [a meditative practice of calming the mind] is specifically aimed at controlling attention. When the word pops up, if you’re able to control your attention, you can say to yourself, “I’m not going to see the whole word. I’m going to focus on the middle of the word and ask only one question: What is its color?” If you’re looking at the whole word, the meaning of the word will compete for your attention, and you’ll be slowed down.

Attention training has broad applications. It would be helpful in the fields of education, mental health, and athletics as well as increasing individual creativity and problem-solving skills. And attention practice is crucial for cultivating the profound virtues of the heart and mind—lovingkindness, compassion, bodhicitta [awakened mind], and the realization of emptiness.

If, when anger or another afflictive emotion arises, you can say to yourself, “Never mind the object of my anger and the context; isn’t this interesting?” and investigate your own emotional state instead of merely reacting, you can also cultivate greater emotional balance and mental health.”

[Thanks, Jeanne!]