APS logoAccording to Dalai Lama, Buddha’s life story includes three stages of practice, starting with morality, followed by meditation and then ultimately wisdom. Amongst these three stages, meditation has been identified as a vital practice for the mind. Experts reveal that Buddhist meditation can apparently improve a person’s ability to be attentive and meditation training aids people do better at focusing for a long time on a task that requires them to identify small differences between things they see. Practicing meditation may be difficult but its benefits are worth it.

Being inspired by the Buddhist monks, Clifford Saron started investigating monks decades ago. In order to commence with the study, volunteers were made to go through intensive training and changes in their mental abilities were monitored. Amongst a total of 140 people, 60 were considered as participants in the study.

“You wonder if the mental skills, the calmness, the peace that they express, if those things are a result of their very intensive training or if they were just very special people to begin with,” explained Katherine MacLean, who worked on the study as a graduate student at the University of California, Davis.

The participants were divided into two equal groups. While the former group of 30 participants went on a meditation retreat in Colorado with B. Alan Wallace, the latter group waited for their turn. So the second group served as a control for the first group. The authors enlightened that all the study subjects had been on at least three, five-to-ten day meditation retreats before. This suggests that the participants were not new to the practice.

The study participants were subjected to various experiments by the scientists. In the course of the retreat, at three points every participant underwent a test on a computer to measure how well they could make fine visual distinctions and sustain visual attention. During the test, the participants had to watch a screen intently as lines flashed on it. Even though most of the lines were of the same length, every now and then a shorter one would appear. As the shorter one appeared on the screen, the subjects had to click the mouse in response.

Katherine MacLean remarked, “Because this task is so boring and yet is also very neutral, it’s kind of a perfect index of meditation training. People may think meditation is something that makes you feel good and going on a meditation retreat is like going on vacation, and you get to be at peace with yourself. That’s what people think until they try it. Then you realize how challenging it is to just sit and observe something without being distracted.”

Investigators mentioned that with progression of the training, the subjects too got better at identifying the short lines. It was concluded that over a long period of time, improvement in perception made it easier to sustain attention, so the participants also improved their task performance. Apparently this improvement continued for five months after the retreat, especially for those who continued to meditate every day. The entire task was accomplished in 30 days.

This investigation is claimed to be the most comprehensive study of intensive meditation. Throughout the study, methods from fields like molecular biology, neuroscience, and anthropology were considered. Future studies will be conducted with the help of the same participants to analyze their mental abilities, like the way they regulate their emotions and their general well-being.

The study is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.