If you've ever struggled to keep your mind from wandering during an important test or another task that requires laser-like focus, researchers say a little meditation could help you concentrate.
Mindfulness training, which teaches how to center one's thoughts on the present moment, improved both GRE reading-comprehension scores and working memory capacity in a group of college students, according to the results of a new study.
"Despite the wide recognition that mind wandering is a pervasive and often disruptive influence in our lives, almost no research has established effective strategies for reducing mind wandering," Michael Mrazek, a graduate student researcher in psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said in a statement. "We set out to find ways to reduce mind wandering and thereby improve performance within educational contexts."
Mrazek and his colleagues recruited 48 college students and assigned half to a mindfulness class and half to a nutrition class as a control. The classes met for 45 minutes four times a week for two weeks. While the students in the nutrition class learned about strategies for healthy eating, students in the mindfulness class learned how to clear distracting thoughts out of their head. In some of their meditation exercises, they sat on cushions in a circle, legs crossed and gaze lowered, focusing their attention on a sensory experience, like their own breathing, the taste of a piece of fruit, or the sound of an audio recording, allowing the mind to rest naturally instead of actively trying to suppress thoughts that may pop up.
All of the students took two tests before and after their course — one memory test that required them to remember different combinations of letters and one reading-comprehension section of the GRE (Graduate Record Examination), the standardized test used for entrance into graduate school. [Mind Games: 7 Reasons You Should Meditate]
The mindfulness trainees significantly improved their accuracy on the GRE and the working memory test, compared with the control group, the researchers found. The students kept a count of the times they caught their thoughts straying during the tests and took surveys of to measure their concentration. The self-reports indicated that the test improvement might be explained by reduced mind-wandering.
"What surprised me the most was actually the clarity of the results," Mrazek said. "Even with a rigorous design and effective training program, it wouldn't be unusual to find mixed results. But we found reduced mind-wandering in every way we measured it."
Mindfulness training also has been shown to help break harmful thought cycles, such as those that accompany depression, in which the mind continues to repeat the same negative ideas. One small study even showed that mindfulness can quiet anxious, self-judgmental thoughts during sex that may prevent some women from experiencing arousal. Other research showed that Zen meditation — which encourages awareness through essentially thinking about nothing — could help people with disorders marked by distracting thoughts, like attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder.
The new research was published in the journal Psychological Science.
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