By Ruby Prosser Scully
Daily meditation guided by an app may help improve memory and attention. After six weeks of using the app, adults performed better on tasks aimed at testing these attributes than a control group.
David Ziegler at the University of California, San Francisco, and his colleagues wanted to see if they could improve people’s attention spans. They randomly assigned 40 adults into two groups: in one participants practiced meditation using an app and in the control group participants used foreign language, tai chi and logic game apps.
The trials lasted for six weeks, with participants using the apps for 20 to 30 minutes in total each day, made up of short bursts.
The team tested the participant’s memory and attention across a range of tasks. In one, participants had to focus on a crosshair in the centre of the screen and respond only when a square popped up in the bottom half of the screen, which only happened rarely, while squares frequently popped up in the top half of the screen. They then tracked brain wave patterns of some of the participants using an electroencephalogram (EEG).
Overall, those who had undergone the meditation training reduced the variation in their reaction times by 8 milliseconds, indicating that they were less distracted, compared to the control group that saw no reduction. The ones who achieved the biggest improvements at focusing on their breath also saw the most improvement at sustaining their attention.
The meditation group also appeared to have more consistent activity in the brain regions associated with attention while performing the trials. “If there is high variability, it might reflect switching between cognitive states (e.g., attending vs mind-wandering),” says Ziegler.
However, there are important caveats to the results. The meditation group received training from a teacher before beginning the trial, which may have influenced the results.
Additionally, the trial originally had 59 participants but 19 people dropped out or their data was lost due to technical malfunctions. It is not clear how the findings would have been influenced if data from the absent individuals was included in the final analysis, says Nicholas Van Dam at the University of Melbourne.
It is also challenging to create a proper control group for an intervention such as meditation, and while the study tried to replicate some of the features the meditation app had, it’s possible that switching between apps was a less appealing or inspiring experience, he says.
While an important step forward in understanding the effect of meditation on the brain, a bigger study will be needed to see if it’s reproducible, says Van Dam.
Journal reference: Nature Human Behaviour, DOI: 10.1038/s41562-019-0611-9
More on these topics: