Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Meditation Improves Your Powers of Attention

Recent research carried out at the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that attention can be improved by meditation - UniWisconsin. Your brain has only a finite amount of power and if you pay close attention to one thing this means you may miss something else. If two visual signals for example are shown a half-second apart, people often don’t see the second one.

"The attention momentarily goes off-line," says Richard Davidson of the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health and the Waisman Center. "Your attention gets stuck on the first target, then you miss the second one." This effect is called "attentional blink," as when you blink your eyes, you are briefly unaware of visual signals.

But given that people can sometimes catch the second signal suggests that the limitation is not strictly physical and may be subject to mental control.
Davidson's research group in the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior under the leadership of postdoctoral fellow Heleen Slagter, studied whether meditation can affect attention.

The study examined the effects of three months of intensive training in Vipassana meditation (10 – 12 hours a day). After the training volunteers were asked to look for target numbers in a series of distracting letters quickly flashed on a screen. Their brain activity was recorded using electrodes on their scalps.
It was discovered that 3 months of intensive Vipassana meditation improved people's ability to detect a second target within the half-second time window. In addition the amount of brain activity associated with seeing the first target was reduced.

The results suggest that as fewer neural resources are devoted to the first target there are enough left over to attend to another target that follows shortly after it.

"Their previous practice of meditation is influencing their performance on this task," Davidson says. "The conventional view is that attentional resources are limited. This shows that attention capabilities can be enhanced through learning."

Vipassana meditation is a traditional Buddhist form of meditation known as ‘choiceless awareness’ or ‘to see things as they really are’. There are numerous organisations and meditation groups around the world or websites that explain how to practise vipassana. It is very straightftorward as the term choicelss awareness suggests. It merely requires seeing that whatever arises passes away and is not you. In the UK the best place to practise vipassana, in my experience is Amaravati a Buddhist centre run by an American Buddhist monk Ajahn Sumedho. They have numerous branches in various countries around the world, including the US Abhayagiri, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Italy and Switzerland.

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