Practicing meditation reduces mind wandering while reading

New psychology research suggests that meditation training can improve a person’s ability to detect errors while reading by preventing the reader from becoming distracted by off-topic thoughts.

Meditation techniques developed within the tradition of Buddhism require practitioners to focus their attention solely on a particular object of thought or a particular sensation. The meditator, for instance, can hold an image of an apple in the mind or focus attention on his or her breathing. The goal of this form of meditation is to train the mind not to wander.

In two longitudinal studies led by Anthony P. Zanesco of the University of California, Davis, researchers examined whether this type of meditation training could help people reduce mind wandering when reading a text. The results of the research were published in the journal Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice.

“A major aim of contemplative mind training is to develop and support the serviceable application of attention toward the accomplishment of task goals and the maintenance of ethical behavior,” the researchers explained. “Through directed mental training, practitioners are thought to enhance their ability to regulate the contents of awareness so that the deleterious consequences of the wandering mind may be tempered.”

The results of the two studies suggests practitioners of meditation may be less susceptible to distraction while reading.

In their first study, the researchers found that 30 people who had attended 3 months of intensive shamatha meditation training during a retreat at Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado were better able to detect gibberish while reading a children’s story.

Before and after attending the retreat, the participants in the study completed a gibberish detection task. This task involved reading a children’s story on a computer while monitoring the text for nonsensical sentences. “We must make some circus of the money,” is an example of gibberish the participant might encounter.

The participants were able to identify gibberish quicker after having attended the meditation retreat. They were also less likely to report being off-task while reading the children’s story. A follow-up after seven years indicated this improvement was persistent.

This initial study was exploratory, Zanesco and his colleagues said, and suffered from a notable limitation: there was no control group. In a second study, the researchers sought to rectify this weakness by comparing two groups of participants.

They recruited 55 participants from the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. All of these participants were familiar with meditation techniques. However, 28 of these participants underwent 1 month of intensive vipassanā meditation training, while the remaining 27 participants did not.

The researchers found that participants who completed the intensive meditation training were better at detecting gibberish than the participants who did not receive the training.

“Meditation practitioners across both studies demonstrated greater levels of error monitoring following training, as measured by their ability to detect gross semantic violations in the text. This suggests that training group participants were more attentive to the story content and ongoing text, allowing them to better detect these salient text discrepancies,” Zanesco and his colleagues wrote in the study.

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