UC DAVIS (US)—Visual perception and sustained attention can be improved through intensive mental training and meditation, new research shows.

“These results show for the first time that improved perception, often claimed to be a benefit of meditation practice, underlies improvements in sustained attention,” says project leader Clifford Saron, associate research scientist at University of California, Davis.

A paper describing the results will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science and was posted on the journal website May 11.

It is the first paper to be published from a major scientific study of meditation training, the Shamatha Project.

In the 1990s Saron observed exiled Tibetan monks and yogis in the Indian foothills of the Himalayas, who had achieved remarkable emotional calm, focus and joyfulness in their lives, sometimes despite great hardship and suffering and became interested in knowing if those states could  be achieved only individuals with unusually serene dispositions or if they could be achieved by most people through intensive training.

For the project, 30 participants attended a three-month meditation retreat where they received ongoing instruction in meditation techniques from Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, while attending group sessions twice a day and engaging in individual practice for about six hours a day.

At the beginning, end, and in the middle of the course, participants were tested on attention and cognition, psychological and emotional measures, and physical and physiological changes.

A control group of 30 people matched for age, sex, education, ethnicity, and meditation experience was assessed at the same time and in the same place, but did not otherwise attend meditation training at that time. The control group did undergo identical training later.

The visual attention experiments were based on tests traditionally used to assess vigilance in radar operators and other professions requiring long durations of uninterrupted attention: participants had to watch lines appearing on a screen and click a mouse when they saw lines that were shorter than others.
By midway through the retreat, meditators had become better at making fine visual distinctions. They were able to identify a smaller difference between “long” and “short” lines, and were better able to sustain attention during the half-hour test. Those findings are consistent with Buddhist claims that meditation cultivates “attentional vividness.”

People who continued practicing meditation after the retreat still showed improvements in perception when they were retested about five months later.

Meditation training may free up mental resources so that attentional focus can be sustained more easily for extended periods of time, Saron explains. Meditators may also be more aware of normally subtle changes in experience that others miss, and have better emotional regulation.

The Shamatha Project shows that women and men of diverse age, ethnicity, education, and meditation experience can achieve measurable changes in their mental state and capabilities if they can commit to intensive training, Saron says.

While the Shamatha Project is the largest and most comprehensive attempt yet to study changes brought about by mental training, its results cannot capture the full, first-person subjective experience of meditation, Saron says.

“We’re not trying to bottle someone’s experience,” he explains. The project may, however, give insights into the nature of the mind and the relation between psychological and physiological traits using data from both first- and third-person perspectives.

Researchers from UC Irvine and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine contributed to the study.

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