Three months of intense training in a form of meditation known as "insight" in Sanskrit can sharpen a person's brain enough to help them notice details they might otherwise miss.
These new findings add to a growing body of research showing that millennia-old mental disciplines can help control and improve the mind, possibly to help treat conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
"Certain mental characteristics that were previously regarded as relatively fixed can actually be changed by mental training," University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson said. "People know physical exercise can improve the body, but our research and that of others holds out the prospects that mental exercise can improve minds."
Paying attention to facts requires time and effort, and since everyone only has a limited amount of brainpower to go around, details can get overlooked. For instance, when two pictures are flashed on a video screen a half-second apart, people often miss the second image.
"Your attention gets stuck on the first target, then you miss the second one," Davidson said. This is called "attentional blink," an effect akin to how you might overlook something when you blink your eyes.
Still, the fact that people can occasionally catch the second picture suggests it's possible to sharpen one's attention with training, which is just what the new meditation study found.
"Meditation is a family of methods designed to facilitate regulation of emotion and attention," said Davidson, who headed up the study.
In recent years, scientists have found meditation affects brain functions. For instance, research into Tibetan monks trained in focusing their attention on a single object or thought revealed they could concentrate on one image significantly longer than normal when shown two different images at each eye. Another study of people who on average meditated 40 minutes daily found that areas of their brains linked with attention and sensory processing became thicker.
"One of the fundamental mysteries that is now becoming better understood as we go along but which is still a breakthrough area of research is neuroplasticity, the idea that we can literally change our brains through mental training," Davidson told LiveScience. "Certain kinds of mental characteristics such as attention or certain emotions such as happiness can best be regarded as skills that can be trained."
When Davidson first met His Holiness the Dalai Lama nearly a decade ago, the exiled leader of Tibet encouraged Davidson to conduct scientific research into meditation, "and I recognized it was a very appropriate time to begin such research, because the methods we have available now to study the brain have improved dramatically and the scientific community is significantly more receptive to such ideas."
Ten to 12 hours daily
Davidson and his colleagues investigated the impacts of Vipassana, a roughly 2,500-year-old discipline that is the oldest form of Buddhist meditation and focuses on reducing mental distraction and improving sensory awareness. Davidson has practiced Vipassana and other forms of Buddhist meditation for more than 30 years.
"This is not the only form of meditation we're interested in, but it is a widely practiced form of instruction that can easily be replicated elsewhere in the country," Davidson said.
The researchers investigated 17 volunteers before and after they completed three months of rigorous training in Vipassana. T hey meditated for 10 to 12 hours a day. The researchers also studied 23 novices who received a one-hour meditation class and then meditated for 20 minutes daily for a week.
The scientists asked volunteers to look for numbers flashed on a video screen amongst a series of distracting letters. Their brain activity was monitored using electrodes placed on their scalps.
Davidson and his colleagues found the brains of volunteers who received the intense mental training apparently needed less time to spot details than before. The training also improved their ability to detect the second number within the half-second attentional blink time window. In comparison, the novices did not appear to experience such improvements to a significant degree, findings detailed online May 8 in the journal PLoS Biology.
ADHD treatment potential
"This attentional blink finding shows a little wedge of what might be a much larger dimension of experience that could be opened up by meditation techniques," said neuroscientist Clifford Saron at the University of California-Davis Center for Mind and Brain. "You can imagine that life is a series of attentional blinks, and we might be missing an awful lot of what's going on."
Applications of this work include treatment of attention-related conditions, Davidson explained.
"There is an absolute explosion of prescriptions for kids who are diagnosed with ADHD. I'm not against the judicious use of medication, but there probably is vast over-prescription for this disorder, and strategies like meditation could be an acceptable complement or substitute for medication for certain kids," Davidson said. "There still needs to be rigorous research to establish that, but our work is provocative enough to warrant more systematic follow-up."
In the next five years, Davidson expects a dramatically increased level of research into meditation "because it is beginning to be recognized as something that takes advantage of the plasticity of the brain, has relatively few if any side-effects and has potentially very beneficial effects, the impact of which can be documented using the most rigorous scientific methods."
Other avenues of research Davidson and his colleagues are currently pursuing include the impacts of meditation on pain, inflammation regulation, and emotions and the brain circuits that handle feelings.
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