Mindfulness meditation is known to improve mental health and wellness. One of the ways it is believed to do this is by simultaneously increasing focus and broadening attention, allowing one to attend to thoughts and sensations absent strong emotional reactions. However, while some research has demonstrated that relatively short meditation sessions can lead to increased focus, it is less clear how short-term meditation affects attentional broadening.
This was the goal of researchers from the University of Salford, U.K., whose paper is published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement. In the study, 70 meditation-naïve staff and students underwent a series of global-local processing tasks, punctuated by short meditation sessions or free time (control). The results have interesting implications for the level of meditation required to obtain attentional benefits.
In a global-local processing task, subjects are required to attend to either a global feature while ignoring local features, or vice-versa. Traditionally, this takes the form of a large letter composed of many smaller letters, like a mosaic. Subjects are asked to identify whether a target letter is a global feature (large letter) or local feature (one of the many small letters).
Drawing on past research demonstrating that individuals in positive emotional states tend to show increased focus on global features, the authors predicted that performance on global-feature tasks would improve for individuals in the meditation group as compared to the control task.
The results of the study indicate that the short meditation periods were sufficient to alter mood, but failed to broaden attention. Interestingly, individuals in the meditation condition reported not only fewer negative thoughts, but also fewer positive thoughts. They tended toward a “neutral emotional state.” Citing theory, the authors suggest that meditative practice may first blunt emotional experiences during the focusing stage, while positive affect occurs only during the broadened-focus stage.
The authors note several limitations, chief among which relates to the choice of the global-local task. It has been suggested that this task is better suited to measuring processing style than attentional broadening—and the authors’ own results support this, as no relation was found between attentional broadening and emotional affect. Similarly, the meditation style may have been inappropriate. Subjects were asked to count their breaths and press a key, changing keys every 9th breath. Overall, it may have been too complex to accompany mindfulness meditation.
While the present study failed to elicit broadened attention, and thus cannot provide a precise time indication where this begins, it does help researchers narrow in on this timeframe. Meditation is a powerful tool, but one that is still not well understood. Understanding the lower limits of time commitments will allow practitioners to provide more useful interventions when using mindfulness to improve mental health and wellbeing.
The study, “The Influence of a Short-Term Mindfulness Meditation Intervention on Emotion and Visual Attention“, was authored by Catherine Thompson, Eileen Quigley, and Ashley Taylor.