Meditation seems to aid concentration

For people who have difficulty staying on task, intensive meditation may help.

So say researchers from several campuses of the University of California, who had 30 participants attend a three-month retreat during which they practiced meditation for about five hours a day. Researchers then periodically tested the participants’ ability to stay focused when confronted with a boring visual task.

That chore was spending 30 minutes merely identifying long and short lines that flashed on a computer screen. Participants were given this test at the beginning, middle and end of the retreat and again five months later. The study also used a control group of 30 people who were familiar with meditation but came to the retreat only for the visual testing.

Participants who lived at the retreat center went without television, phones, the Internet and books. They had instructor-led meditation in the morning and evening, and they spent most of their free time in solitary meditation, said the lead researcher, Katherine MacLean.

Before the retreat began, the experimental and control groups scored similarly in keeping track of long and short lines. As the retreat continued, those in the meditation group performed better. Those in the control group showed some improvement after the first test, but their changes weren’t as great.

Participants who continued to practice meditation daily after the retreat maintained their increased ability to concentrate, whereas those who stopped had a drop-off, the researchers reported.

“The changes that occur [during the meditation retreat] are still with you once you go back to daily life and help you function better,” MacLean said. “Purely mental training can improve your ability . . . to perceive things more clearly, and that can make it easier to pay attention.” The study findings were published in the June issue of Psychological Science.

[Leslie Tamura, Washington Post]

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