Long-lasting benefits of using meditation to sustain attention

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Gains in the ability to sustain attention developed through intensive meditation training are maintained up to seven years later, reports a study is based on the Shamatha Project, a major investigation of the cognitive, psychological and biological effects of meditation led by researchers at the University of California Davis’ Centre for Mind and Brain.

“This study is the first to offer evidence that intensive and continued meditation practice is associated with enduring improvements in sustained attention and response inhibition, with the potential to alter longitudinal trajectories of cognitive change across a person’s life,” said first author Dr Anthony Zanesco, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Miami, who began work on the project before starting his PhD programme in psychology at UC Davis.

The project is led by Clifford Saron, research scientist at the UC Davis Centre for Mind and Brain, in collaboration with a large group of researchers.

The Shamatha Project is the most comprehensive longitudinal study of intensive meditation yet undertaken and has drawn the attention of scientists and Buddhist scholars alike, including the Dalai Lama, who has endorsed the project. It examines the effects of two intensive meditation retreats held in 2007 at the Shambhala Mountain Centre in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado.

The study followed 60 experienced meditators who attended these three-month meditation retreats and received ongoing instruction in meditation techniques from Buddhist scholar, author and teacher B Alan Wallace of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. They attended group meditation sessions twice a day and engaged in individual practice for about six hours a day.

Immediately after the study, participants in the meditation retreat showed improvements in attention as well as in general psychological well-being and ability to cope with stress.

Since the retreats, the researchers have followed up with participants at six and 18 months, and most recently at seven years. The 40 participants who remained in the study at this latest follow-up all reported that they continued some form of meditation practice over the seven-year period, equivalent to about an hour a day on average.

The new study shows that those gains in attention observed immediately after retreat were partly maintained seven years later, especially for older participants who maintained a more diligent meditation practice over the seven years. Compared to those who practiced less, these participants maintained cognitive gains and did not show typical patterns of age-related decline in sustained attention.

The participants’ lifestyle or personality might also have contributed to the observations, Zanesco noted. Benefits from meditation appeared to have plateaued after the retreats, even in participants who practiced the most: This could have implications for how much meditation can, in fact, influence human cognition and the workings of the brain, he said.

Abstract
Sustained attention is effortful, demanding, and subject to limitations associated with age-related cognitive decline. Researchers have sought to examine whether attentional capacities can be enhanced through directed mental training, with a number of studies now offering evidence that meditation practice may facilitate generalized improvements in this domain. However, the extent to which attentional gains are maintained following periods of dedicated meditation training and how such improvements are moderated by processes of aging have yet to be characterized. In a prior report (Sahdra et al., Emotion 11, 299–312, 2011), we examined attentional performance on a sustained response inhibition task before, during, and after 3-months of full-time meditation. We now extend this prior investigation across additional follow-up assessments occurring up to 7 years after the conclusion of training. Performance improvements observed during periods of intensive practice were partially maintained several years later. Importantly, aging-related decrements in measures of response inhibition accuracy and reaction time variability were moderated by levels of continued meditation practice across the follow-up period. The present study is the first to offer evidence that intensive and continued meditation practice is associated with enduring improvements in sustained attention and response inhibition, with the potential to alter longitudinal trajectories of cognitive change across the lifespan.

Authors
Anthony P Zanesco, Brandon G King, Katherine A MacLean, Clifford D Saron

University of California – Davis material
Journal of Cognitive Enhancement abstract


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