Alertness & Attention Span
Meditation Increases Alertness and Attention Span, Even for Boring Tasks
Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which, in French, is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.
— William James
William James, sometimes referred to as the father of modern American psychology, often contemplated the difficulties of “educating” attention. Without the ability to control our wandering attention, he said, we could not be compos sui or “masters of ourselves.”
The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.
That was in the 1950s, at the beginning of the “cognitive revolution” when research psychologists finally admitted that unobservable cognitive processes like attention were legitimate objects of scientific study. The education par excellence that James sought was decades away. There was no neuroimaging technology that would allow us to peek inside a person’s brain to observe, in real time, exactly what his or her brain was up to in any given moment. And certainly meditation was not yet considered to be a strategy for improving attention.
But modern research and technology is revealing the neurophysiology of attention and shedding light on meditation’s practical ability to educate it. Meditation, by its very nature, has an inherent ability to increase attentiveness and sharpen one’s powers of perception.
It can be challenging to concentrate on something for a long period of time (especially a boring something), even when we’re alert and capable of optimal attention span. One 2011 study found that meditation may change the brain in ways that help increase attention span for banal tasks that require us to distinguish small differences between objects (MacLean, Saron, Wallace, 2011). Researchers sent 30 participants on an intensive 3-month meditation retreat, then assessed
meditation’s impact with a demanding but boring task, as an index of meditation’s inherent ability to train attention. (It’s much easier, after all, to pay attention to something interesting for thirty minutes.) For 30 minutes, participants intently watched a series of continually flashing lines on a computer screen, responding when a shorter line popped up. Meditation was found to significantly improve both attention span and their ability to accurately discriminate between long and short lines.
This improvement lasted for about five months, especially for those who continued to meditate every day, which suggests that the very practice of regular meditation itself can automatically train attention and continue to provide benefits long after the meditation sessions are over.
Sahaja meditation techniques, in particular, add nimbleness to our attention and deftness to our ability to control it. This happens because you practice going into the higher state of consciousness, which allows you to disengage yourself from the mental plane of thoughts and feelings.
From this higher plane of consciousness, you can clearly see them, and can even avoid them when you want to. Rather than allowing your attention to wander or be consumed by interfering thoughts and distractions, you direct it. With the help of your own inner energy, you can detach yourself from your thoughts, as if “watching them from above.” Ultimately, you can use this technique to shift your attention in a controllable fashion from one thought to the next according to your choice. Obviously, this skill is easier said than done. It takes quite a bit of practice.
But the good news is that, with Sahaja meditation techniques, there is a logical, clear method for mastering your attention and organizing your thoughts.
We all struggle to pay attention sometimes; after lunch, for example. It’s mid-afternoon and perhaps you find yourself getting sleepy… very sleepy. How do you get that much-needed energy jolt? A power nap? Exercise? A cup of coffee?
One study showed that meditation is more effective than any of these other three alternatives, even for people with no prior meditation experience (O’Hara, Kaul, 2006). Researchers compared four “interventions” — meditation, napping, caffeine and exercise — to determine how each affected a person’s ability to perform boring tasks during mid- to late afternoon, when attention and alertness are most likely to flag. Novice meditators received two short sessions of basic meditation instruction, then were tested before and after 40 minutes of either meditating, napping exercising, or taking caffeine. They performed a simple (and boring) psychomotor vigilance task, which involved viewing a series of images on a display screen and pressing a button when lighted images popped up. The result? Meditation was the only intervention that immediately led to superior performance. As for the other pick-me-up strategies…
Caffeine helped a little. Exercise was unpredictable. And everyone actually performed worse after a 40-minute nap, perhaps due to “sleep inertia.” While a power nap tends to improve performance, it can take an hour or so to recover from grogginess. So, if your goal in napping was to recharge your batteries quickly and get back to work, you might feel that the cure is worse than the disease. Meditation, on the other hand, leaves you instantly recharged and refreshed. You’ll experience “immediate recovery” — no grogginess, no loss of productivity.
In other words, a few minutes of meditation is not only more impactful, you’re not saddled with the side effects of napping (grogginess), exercise (soreness) or caffeine (withdrawal).
Previous studies have reported that regular meditators seem to need less sleep, suggesting that, in terms of attention, meditation may serve the same function as sleep. In the above study, for example, when participants were tested after skipping a night’s sleep, meditation was found to be even more helpful to performance.
Now, this is not to suggest that you can count on meditation to reduce the number of hours you sleep, or to replace sleep altogether — you can’t. In the overall scheme of maintaining good health, nothing replaces the benefits of a good night’s sleep. But you may find that, in the short term, Sahaja meditation is more effective than sleep at boosting alertness and attention span. In a pinch, a quick meditation session may be just what you need to relieve fatigue and drowsinesss and trigger that burst of energy you need to keep going, even if you’re operating under a sleep deficit.
And meditation significantly improves sleep quality — you’ll fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. So, even if you’re getting enough sleep, meditation can still make you feel more alert and energetic and less affected by normal daily wear and tear. And after all, who couldn’t use a little more energy?
- Bruce O’Hara, Prashant Kaul of the University of Kentucky, US. The results were presented at a recent conference of the Society for Neuroscience in 2006.
- James, William. Psychology: Briefer Course. Harper Torchbooks, 1961. p. 424.
- MacLean, K., Saron, C., Wallace, A.. Cognitive Bias Modification: Past Perspectives, Current Findings, and Future Applications. Perspectives on Psychological Science. November 1, 2011. 6: 521-536.
- James, William. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt, Vol. 1, pp. 403-404. 1950.