Meditation Reduces Attentional Blink and Improves Information Processing
We have the capacity to laser-focus on any object or event in our environment. But the trade-off is that paying close attention to one thing often prevents us from noticing something else. This phenomenon is known as attentional blink. It’s as if we blinked our eyes and our attention briefly went off-line. And during that split-second interval and missed something.
An attentional-blink deficit occurs when two pieces of information are presented to you in close succession and your brain doesn’t detect the second piece of information because it was busy processing the first.
For example, let’s say that two photos, one of a Labrador Retriever and one of a Lhasa Apso, are shown to us a half-second apart, embedded in a rapid sequence of distracters (say, 20 photos of cats). The second photo of the Lhasa Apso is likely to sneak by unnoticed because our attention got stuck on the first photo of the Lab.
This glitch in our information processing system is a resource allocation problem. It surfaces when it takes too long for us to identify and consolidate the first stimulus in short-term memory. During visual perception, the brain is busy switching back and forth between focusing on an object and interpreting it. When too many attentional resources are devoted to the processing the first stimulus, too few are available for the second.
Attentional blink used to be thought of as a fixed property of the nervous system, but modern research has proven that the problem isn’t a physical signaling glitch in the brain. After all, sometimes we do catch that second signal. So blink is not an inevitable bottleneck. And attention is not a fixed capacity. Attention is a flexible, trainable skill that can be improved through a technique such as Sahaja meditation.
Meditation, by its very nature, trains attention, which is our ability to select and focus on relevant information from the array of input that constantly bombards our sensory systems. Learning to release thoughts that pop into your mind frees it to attend to more relevant rapidly changing events in the present moment.
Experienced meditators, for example, have been found to be better than other people at detecting fast-changing stimuli, such as emotional facial expressions (Slagter, H.A., Lutz, A., Greischar, L.L., et al 2007). Sahaja practitioners generally report that meditation improves their intuition skills. Possibly the attentional efficiency and heightened awareness long associated with meditative practice contributes to this heightened intuitiveness.
One study showed that regular meditation practice can reduce attentional blink and increase the brain’s information processing efficiency (Slagter, H.A., Lutz, A., Greischar, L.L., et al 2007). The meditation techniques (in this case, Vipassana) focused on improving sensory awareness, reducing mental distraction and remaining in the present moment — all of which are easily achievable at the most fundamental level of Sahaja meditation. This non-reactive form of attention prevents us from becoming caught up in judgments or emotional responses to incoming information. While most other forms of meditation try to achieve thoughtless awareness through a focused attempt or concentration to avoid thoughts, thoughtless awareness is achieved in Sahaja meditation by shifting your attention to a higher plane of awareness, where you are freed from thoughts, feelings, problems and the other “busy” activity on the mental plane.
To determine how meditation impacted attentional blink, this University of Wisconsin study compared experienced meditation practitioners who attended an intensive 3-month meditation retreat to novices who received a 1-hour meditation class and meditated for 1 week, 20 minutes each day. All participant were tested through EEG monitoring and a computer task that required them to find certain numbers in a series of distracting letters that were quickly flashed on a computer screen less than one-half second apart — the typical attentional blink time window.
Before meditation training, both practitioners and novices only detected the second number about 60 percent of the time. After training, most practitioners detected the second number about 80 percent of the time (90 percent for some), whereas, the novices showed slight improvement, detecting the second number 69% of the time.
EEG monitoring showed that regular, longer-term meditative practice significantly reduced the attention invested in the first number. The less attention they devoted to the first number, the greater their accuracy in detecting the second number and the smaller their attentional-blink size.
Experienced practitioners were able to “let go” of the first number, while novices tended to hang onto it, which caused them to miss the second number. The study also found that experienced practitioners were able to reject “distracter interference” by decreasing the amount of attention that any one stimulus can capture. In other words, experienced meditators became non-blinkers. In fact, several neuroimaging studies of long-term Sahaja meditation practitioners have shown that Sahaja increases gray matter volume throughout the entire brain, including both left and right hemispheric regions associated with sustained attention and cognitive control (Hernández et al, 2016).
Attentional blink doesn’t just manifest with visual perception. Learning to control it through meditation will make you a much better listener, too. For example, if someone is talking to you, your mind is less likely to get sidetracked by your own personal judgments and reactions to what they’re saying.
Practice allows us to learn new skills and improve all sorts of abilities. The practice of meditation is no different.
Meditation can cause lasting changes in how our brains allocate our mental resources. Regular meditation can help us continue to adapt and improve our attentional skills throughout life.
Hernández SE, Suero J, Barros A, González-Mora JL, Rubia K (2016) Increased Grey Matter Associated with Long-Term Sahaja Yoga Meditation: A Voxel-Based Morphometry Study. PLoS ONE 11(3): e0150757.
Slagter HA, Lutz A, Greischar LL, Francis AD, Nieuwenhuis S, Davis JM, Davidson RJ.. Mental training affects distribution of limited brain resources. PLoS Biol 2007;5(6):e138.