July 15, 2010 -- People who learn how to meditate using Buddhist techniques not only may find a bit of peace in life, but also can improve their attention and focus a new study shows.
Psychologist Katherine A. MacLean, PhD, and other researchers, signed up 30 people with an average age of 49 to go on a three-month meditation retreat in Colorado. Another 30 people in a comparison group went on a similar retreat.
The participants studied meditation techniques, such as concentrating on breathing, with Buddhist scholar and co-researcher B. Alan Wallace, PhD, of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies.
All participants were aficionados of meditation and had been on retreats before, but this time they were taught how to concentrate and asked to complete various tests. Also, volunteers attended group sessions twice daily and engaged in individual meditative practice for about six hours.
At three points during the retreat, the volunteers took a 30-minute computer test, during which they watched the screen as lines of various lengths flashed randomly in front of them. Most lines were the same length, but sometimes a shorter one would appear.
Volunteers were instructed to respond by clicking the computer mouse when a shorter line appeared in a test to measure their visual attention span and their ability to make distinctions.
Researchers say that as meditation training progressed, the volunteers who received meditation training got better at spotting the short lines compared to those who didn't receive the training, suggesting it became easier to sustain attention.
The comparison group of volunteers went through identical training later and also improved concentration skills and the ability to differentiate the size of lines.
Lasting Improvements in Concentration
The improvement lasted for five months after the end of the retreat. Follow-up assessments were conducted five months after each retreat using laptop computers sent to the homes of participants.
"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," MacLean says in a news release. "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."
The tasks the volunteers performed lasted 30 minutes and were very demanding, according to MacLean, who worked on the study as a graduate student at the University of California, Davis.
"Because the task is so boring and yet is also very neutral, it's kind of a perfect index of meditation training," says MacLean, now of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.
The study is published in the July 2010 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.