It may come as no real surprise that the practice of concentrative meditation, or focusing your attention on just your breath or specific parts of your body or specific movements while trying to quiet all other thoughts, makes you better at focusing your attention and ignoring distractions. Practice makes perfect, and the mind is like a muscle that gets stronger when it’s worked out. But what is truly unique about Jha’s 2007 paper is that they also looked at another kind of attention, which is about open awareness more than concentration.
Experienced meditators will shift their practice from just practicing concentrative meditation to cultivating receptive attention, or an “open awareness” that allows the meditator to perceive more about the world around them. This is getting a step closer to the englightenment the Buddha experienced under the bodhi tree, or the experience Buddhist monks were having when Andrew Newburg had a look at their brain activity. The key thing to remember is that this open awareness is something for experienced meditators to cultivate, after they have laid a strong foundation of concentrative meditation skills.
So Jha and colleagues predicted that improvements in “bottom-up” attention, or reacting to the appearance of things in your surroundings, would only happen in experienced meditators, not novices in an introductory MBSR course. They looked specifically at individuals who had been practicing meditation for about 5 years (some as few as 4 months, others as long as 30 years) who participated in an intense, month-long meditation retreat. Jha predicted that this retreat would help the meditators develop their open awareness skills, and they would then have advantages in bottom-up attention compared to MBSR students and people who had no meditation experience.
The task for measuring bottom-up attention is deceptively simple. The meditators were completing the same flanker task that showed meditation helped focus and ignore distractions, but this time the direction of the arrows doesn’t matter as much as the gap in time between one set of arrows disappearing and the next set appearing, known as the “inter-stimulus interval” in psychology parlance. The participants could wait any time between .4 seconds and 1.6 seconds between arrows, which is unpredictable enough that they could never quite be sure when they could relax for a breath and when they needed to be ready.
When you aren’t sure exactly when the arrows will appear, it will take a little bit of time to register that they’ve arrived and get ready to interpret them and make a decision about which way the center arrow is facing. If researchers want to help people respond more quickly, they can just present a simple cue – an asterisk in the middle of the screen, that basically means “get ready! arrows about to arrive” – so we’re ready for them. This cue is just as important for people who have just completed an MBSR course as it is for people who have never meditated: Both groups shave about 40 milliseconds from their reaction time when that “get ready” cue is provided (the dashed line below). For experienced meditators who had just spent a month in retreat, though, the cue wasn’t necessary: They were just as fast without a “get ready” cue as they were with one, suggesting they could respond very quickly even when they weren’t given a hint that the arrows were about to appear.
But the retreat didn’t help all experienced meditators equally; the more experience the meditators had, the more the retreat helped them improve this “alerting” ability. It’s a small piece of scientific evidence that the informal rules of meditation are correct: You might need a lot of experience with concentrative meditation before you’re ready to make headway into open awareness.
I did take one other thing away from this study, that the authors themselves didn’t talk about to my satisfaction. The group of experienced meditators on retreat here is the same group that got mixed in with the non-meditators when Jha et al. argued that MBSR improved medical students’ top-down attention. These meditators on retreat had advantages on “alerting”, but they no longer had any advantages on maintaining focus and ignoring distraction. This could mean that when meditators try to shift from focusing on the breath to cultivating open awareness, they lose some of the advantages in focusing their attention. In other words, meditation might only offer a temporary gain, that exists as long as you are practicing concentrative meditation, not a permanent boost to your attention.
This is just a guess, though, because science is a very long way from understanding what’s going on in the mind and in the brain with meditation, for novices or for long-term meditators. This study alone certainly isn’t enough to start promoting meditation as a safer and all-natural alternative to the growing use of “study drugs”, but it does give some fascinating hints about the nature of attention, and the potential of meditation to subtly shift the way we attend to the world.
Jha, A.P., Krompinger, J., & Baime, M. J. (2007). Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, 109-119 DOI: 10.3758/CABN.7.2.109