Do you practice meditation to relax, alleviate depression, or restore feelings of inner peace? If so, you’ll be happy to hear about research out of UNC, Charlotte suggesting that brief meditative practice not only improves mood and alleviates anxiety, but also boosts certain aspects of cognition, such as attention and memory.
This finding comes from a study conducted in 2010 by researchers Fadel Zeidan of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and Susan K. Johnson of the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Their paper is published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.
To investigate how meditation affects cognition, the team of researchers recruited 49 students from UNC, Charlotte, none of which had any prior experience meditating, and divided them into two groups – an experimental meditation group and a no meditation control group.
Students in the experimental meditation group received meditation training based on basic Shamatha skills for 20 minutes a day for a total of 4 days. Meanwhile, students in the no meditation control group listened to an audio recording of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” over the same period of time (20 minutes a day for 4 days) and did not engage in any meditation.
In addition to administering several questionnaires to assess the participants’ mood, anxiety, and feelings of mindfulness, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests designed to measure attention and memory (see below for details). These cognitive tests were administered at two different times during the study – before training began on Day 1 and after training concluded on Day 4.
The question was simple. Would a mere 4 days of meditation training be enough to produce measurable improvements in attention and memory? Their findings suggest the answer is yes.
For 3 out of the 4 cognitive tests that were used in the study, scores were significantly higher after training on Day 4 than prior to training on Day 1, but only for the students who received meditation training. Similar improvements in performance were not evident for the group of students that spent 4 days listening to the audio recording of “The Hobbit,” suggesting the improved performance of the experimental group was solely the result of meditation training.
So although meditation is generally thought of as a tool for promoting relaxation and mindfulness of the present moment, it turns out that it might confer some cognitive benefits as well, remarkably even after just a few days of practice.
Does this mean you should now take up meditation to improve your attention span and avoid someday developing Alzheimer’s disease? It’s tempting to think so, but let’s not jump to conclusions just yet.
For one thing, because this research was carried out using healthy undergraduate students as participants, we can’t assume that the findings also apply to other groups of people, such as elderly patients suffering from dementia or children diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Furthermore, although the findings from this study offer hints of a positive effect of meditation on cognition, by no means do they suggest that meditation leads to a lasting overall improvement in attention and memory. All we know for sure is that shortly after being trained in meditation people do better on three very specific cognitive tests, namely those described below:
The Controlled Oral Word Association Test – a measure of verbal fluency, in which participants are given 1 minute to think of as many words as possible that begin with a specific string of letters (e.g., FAS). The dependent variable (the thing that is measured) is the number of words a person produces.
The Symbol Digit Modalities Test – a measure of working memory, in which participants have 90 seconds to try to decode a series of numbers from visual symbols using a reference key provided by the experimenter. The dependent variable is the number of symbols a person successfully decodes minus the number of mistakes they make.
The n-back task – a measure of information processing speed, attention, and working memory, in which participants are presented with a continuous string of letters one at a time and must indicate whether or not a probe letter is the same as the letter that was presented two items back in the sequence. Although this task can yield a number of different measures, the primary dependent variable reported in this study was the number of correct responses a person made in a row before making a mistake.
Out of the 4 cognitive tests that were used in this study, meditation training only improved performance on these three specific tests. And although an improvement on 3 out of 4 tests is impressive, it’s important to point out what meditation did not improve. Meditation did not improve performance on something called the digit span task, which measures the limit on the amount of “stuff” you can hold in your short-term memory at any one time. Therefore, meditation probably isn’t all that helpful for boosting the number of things you can actually store in memory and then later recall.
So although it might be true that brief meditation training leads to small improvements in cognitive functioning after just a few days of training, the effects seem to be limited to specific aspects of attention and memory and to very specific circumstances.
Nonetheless, practitioners of meditation shouldn’t be too discouraged. Based on what this group of researchers has shown, I would say that although the effects might be limited, meditation is probably still more effective at improving attention and memory than some other strategies one might try. For example, an overwhelming amount of research now suggests that all those popular “brain training” programs available on the internet are almost completely useless.
So don’t bother upgrading to the paid version of your favorite brain fitness app or website. If you’re looking to improve your attention span, instead put that money toward a yoga mat. After all, what do you really stand to lose by giving it a try? Even if meditation doesn’t help you to avoid forgetting where you put your car keys each morning, at a minimum it might help you to feel less stressed and frustrated the next time you inevitably find yourself in this situation.
Zeidan, F., Johnson, S.K., Diamond, B.J., David, Z., & Goolkasian, P. (2010). Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition, 19, 597-605. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2010.03.014