An intensive meditation retreat improved controlled attention among those who had attended for five weeks, according to a new longitudinal, waitlist-controlled study. The study, published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, also found evidence that higher inflammatory activity was related to worse attentional control.
“In most of my work, I study how stress and related factors influence cognitive processes, including executive functions, and the (overgeneralized) general finding is that stress impairs them,” explained study author Grant Shields, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas and director of the SCAN Lab.
“I have become increasingly interested in discovering which interventions or factors might improve those same cognitive processes, and meditation is often suggested as something that improves executive functions. I wanted to test that, and to test it precisely using a computational model.”
“I am also interested in understanding how the immune system might influence cognitive processes, so I wanted to examine immune system processes that contribute to inflammation in relation to the other variables in this study,” Shields said.
In the study, 60 participants were randomly assigned to either immediately attend a three-month meditation retreat or to serve as waiting-list controls. Three months after the first retreat ended, those in the control group completed their own identical three-month meditation retreat. During the retreats, the participants practiced shamatha meditation for about six hours per day.
The researchers had the participants complete a computer-based flanker task to assess their ability to maintain focus roughly five weeks after the start of the first retreat. In the task, participants were asked to make quick responses to a central target stimulus, while ignoring irrelevant stimuli that flanked the target.
The team of scientists also collected blood samples at the beginning, middle, and end of the retreats to measure inflammatory biomarkers.
The researchers observed significantly greater attention to goal-relevant information — in this case the target stimulus — in those who had completed five weeks of meditation training compared to the waitlist control group. Similarly, those in the control group showed improvements in attention after they completed their own meditation training.
The findings indicate that “meditation retreats focused on controlled meditative practices enhance the ‘top-down’ (e.g., voluntary) ability to control your attention,” Shields told PsyPost. “Though this oversteps the data, I would presume that this result likely extends to other cognitive processes.”
“In addition, immune system activity responsible for inflammation was inversely associated with this cognitive ability, entailing that interventions (e.g., diet) that downregulate inflammatory immune system activity may enhance top-down control of attention (though we did not test this directly),” Shields added.
“Although we did not examine which components of the intervention were most responsible for this effect, I would guess that it occurred due to meditative practice itself, rather than other aspects of the retreat.”
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“The major caveats are that we did not examine which aspects of the intervention were responsible for this enhancing effect, nor did we experimentally manipulate immune system activity to assess the effects of the immune system on cognition in ways that would allow us to make causal inferences,” Shields explained.
The research was conducted in collaboration with the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis.
“This excellent project was headed by Cliff Saron’s team, and I was fortunate enough to be able to work with their existing data when I approached Cliff with the ideas I wanted to test. I did not have a hand in the study design,” Shields said.
The study, “Deconstructing the effects of concentration meditation practice on interference control: The roles of controlled attention and inflammatory activity“, was authored by Grant S. Shields, Alea C. Skwara, Brandon G. King, Anthony P. Zanesco, Firdaus S. Dhabhar, and Clifford D. Saron.