Meditation is widely touted as having a wide (and seemingly ever widening!) range of benefits. At Meditation: Unlocked we explore the evidence base behind some of those claims. The focus of this piece is… focus!
Let’s start with defining “meditation”. We often refer to meditation in the singular because it’s convenient to do so, but it’s actually an umbrella term that encompasses a number of different mental practices. A good analogy would be with “exercise” as an umbrella term for lots of different physical practices. This clarification will help us to explore which of these practices are beneficial to focus and attention and why.
Mindfulness meditation is one family of meditative practices that has gained a lot of traction in the West. Mindfulness is a nuanced and complex subject but in its simplest terms I would call it “paying attention in the present moment”. In my opinion mindfulness based practices are some of the best meditation tools for systematically training our attention and focus. So what does the science say?
The results of a 2006 study titled “Mindfulness Training Modifies Subsystems of Attention” published in the journal “Cognitive, Affective & Behavioural Neuroscience” suggest that mindfulness training may improve attention related behavioural responses by enhancing the functioning of specific subcomponents of attention.
That study was conducted using groups put through an 8 week mindfulness course or an intensive 1 month mindfulness retreat. That immediately begs the question, how much mindfulness training is actually needed to be able to measure a difference?
A 2010 study published in “Consciousness & Cognition” looked to address that by exploring the effects of brief mindfulness training. Titled “Mindfulness Meditation Improves Cognition: Evidence of Brief Mental Training”, it showed that just 4 brief mindfulness meditation sessions can measuraby affect your ability to sustain attention, as well as unlock a host of related mental wellbeing benefits.
I know both from exploring the science and my own experience that mindfulness oriented meditation can noticeably improve our focus and concentration levels. A 2016 University of Winconsin-Madison study backs this up by showing that just 8 minutes of breath focused meditation led to improved performance on a sustained attention task.
I had set out to explore the effects of meditative practices on focus, but found that lack of focus was affecting something much larger than the triviality of occasionally feeling distracted.
Image of Niraj Shah by Kristina Kashtanova
One of our favourite studies at M:U is from Harvard, published in the journal “Science” in 2010. Entitled “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind” the study worked with 2,250 American volunteers from a wide socioeconomic spread of ages and backgrounds over 6 months, gathering over 250,000 data points. This research showed that 46.9% of the time people were not thinking about the thing they were doing, i.e. their mind was wandering. Let that sink in; almost half the time people were not thinking about the thing they were doing and this was in 2010, before the smartphone revolution and its associated hyper-distraction was in full swing. Furthermore, time lag analysis showed that mind wandering was generally the cause, not the consequence, of unhappiness.
This could be attributed to thoughts either dwelling on the past or worrying about the future generally not being helpful to our current state of mind (unless we are actively learning from the past or actively planning for the future, which is mostly not the case).
If meditation can help us improve our focus and being more focused helps us to be happier, perhaps some of the world’s most ancient traditions’ messages of staying in the present moment have merit far beyond sounding like a nice thing to do?
Going back to that exercise analogy, one meditation session is not going to change your life but the studies cited above show that it can make a difference and the more we do the more difference it can make.
So that leads on to the question of what we can do to improve our focus and attention. Here are my thoughts
The following further tips came from guests in our M:U sessions on the theme of focus & attention:
What are your best focus and attention tips? Let me know in the comments below.
Found this useful and want more?
For our curated edit of the best meditation resources from around the web including guided meditations, more articles like this and some exclusive content drop us your details right here.
MEDITATION: UNLOCKED is an event series and community designed to nurture mental wellbeing for modern life. No crystals, no mumbo jumbo. Just space to breathe, practical tools and the science behind them.
Image by Stacey Williams
Please log in again. The login page will open in a new tab. After logging in you can close it and return to this page.