An article by Christopher J. May, Ph.D.
Dr. May is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Carroll University.
Among the many types of contemplative practices, some are cognition-focused, while others are emotion-focused (for a visual representation of the many types of contemplative practice, see the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society). For example, concentrative (or breath-focused) meditation is designed to strengthen attention, enabling the practitioner to remain focused on a particular object of attention. Loving-kindness meditation, on the other hand, is designed to strengthen feelings of love and kindness and enable the practitioner to intentionally direct these feelings toward other people. In a study recently published in Mindfulness, we demonstrated that loving-kindness meditation also affects cognition. Specifically, practicing this emotion-focused meditation for 15 minutes, 4 days per week, for 8 weeks, improved attention.
We measured improvements in attention with the attentional blink task. In this task, participants were shown a stream of letters, which rapidly flashed at the center of a computer screen. Each letter appeared for just 50 ms, and only 50 ms separated the presentation of letters. Within this stream, participants were asked to identify two targets: a number and the letter X. On each trial, a different number would appear as the first target, and the second target (the X) would appear half of the time. This second target could either appear fairly quickly after the first target, or after a longer delay. The attentional blink refers to a decreased ability to correctly identify whether or not the X appeared when it is presented shortly after the first target. It is as though one’s attention, caught up in processing the first target, blinks, thereby missing the second target.
In our experiment, we tested participants before and after they began loving-kindness meditation training and compared them to a non-meditating control group. After 8 weeks of training, meditators practiced loving-kindness meditation one final time before doing the attentional blink task. What we found is that these meditators had a reduced attentional blink- meaning that they were better able to identify the second target compared to their pre-training performance, and compared to the non-meditating controls. In short, loving-kindness meditation enabled the practitioners to see more! This effect validates one goal of meditation in Buddhism, which is to more accurately see reality. These results are significant in demonstrating that an emotion-focused meditation can bring about attentional changes. These changes were produced with relatively little training- meditators trained for an average of 8 hours spread out of 2 months. In addition, there is evidence that loving-kindness meditation may be more effective than concentrative meditation for some people (Barnhofer et al., 2010), thereby making these attentional improvements potentially more widely accessible. We are currently working on comparative research looking at the relative efficacy and time-courses of concentrative and loving-kindness meditation.
Barnhofer, T., Chittka, T., Nightingale, H., Cisser, C., & Crane, C. (2010). State effects
of two forms of meditation on prefrontal EEG asymmetry in previously depressed individuals. Mindful- ness, 1, 21–27. doi:10.1007/s12671-010-0004-7.
May, C.J., Burgard, M., Mena, M., Abbasi, I., Bernhardt, N., Clemens, S., Curtis, E.,
Daggett, E., Hauch, J., Housh, K., Janz, A., Lindstrum, A., Luttropp, K., & Williamson, R. (2011). Short-term practice of loving-kindness meditation produces a state, but not a trait, alteration of attention. Mindfulness, 2, 3, 143-153. doi: 10.1007/s12671-011-0053-6.