The study comes from researchers including Richard Davidson, PhD, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
They studied 17 people who were experienced in meditation and 23 people of similar backgrounds who were novices in meditation.
For three months, the experienced meditation practitioners attended an intensive meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass. During the retreat, they practiced Vipassana meditation for 10-12 hours daily.
"In this common style of meditation, one starts by focusing or stabilizing concentration on an object such as the breath," Davidson's team writes. "Then one broadens one's focus, cultivating a nonreactive form of sensory awareness or 'bare' attention," the researchers continue. "This form of attention is nonreactive in the sense that ideally one does not become caught up in judgments and affective [mood] responses about sensory or mental stimuli."
For comparison, the 23 meditation novices attended one hour of meditation training and were asked to meditate for 20 minutes daily for one week.
At the end of their meditation training, the researchers tested participants' attention skills.
In the attention test, participants watched a series of letters shown one by one on a computer screen. Each letter was displayed for less than a second.
Every now and then, a letter was followed by a number, instead of another letter. Participants were asked to name the numbers, which (like the letters) only appeared for a split second.
The researchers didn't ask participants to meditate during the tests.
Compared with the meditation novices, participants who had attended the three-month intensive meditation retreat were better at noticing the numbers mixed into the string of letters. The researchers say the findings show that meditation served as mental training that improved control over attention.
The study appears in Public Library of Science Biology.
By Miranda Hitti
Reviewed by Louise Chang, M.D.
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