How meditation can alter behaviour and focus

behaviour and focus

The largest new study of its kind finds that meditation could assist people to become less prone to making mistakes

The study, conducted by the Michigan State University published in Brain Sciences, analysed how open monitoring meditation – meditation that focuses awareness on feelings, thoughts, or sensations as they unfold in a person’s mind and body – altered brain activity in a way that implies increased error recognition.

Jeff Lin, MSU psychology doctoral candidate and study co-author, is among a relatively small group of researchers that take a neuroscientific approach to assessing the psychological and performance effects of meditation.

Lin and his MSU co-authors recruited over 200 participants and tested how open monitoring meditation affected how people detect and respond to errors.

Lin said: “People’s interest in meditation and mindfulness is outpacing what science can prove in terms of effects and benefits. But it’s amazing to me that we were able to see how one session of a guided meditation can produce changes to brain activity in non-meditators.”

Mindfulness meditation can lower cortisol, the stress hormone

The findings suggest that different forms of meditation can have different neurocognitive effects, Lin explained that there is little research about how open monitoring meditation impacts error recognition.

Lin added: “Some forms of meditation have you focus on a single object, commonly your breath, but open monitoring meditation is a bit different. It has you tune inward and pay attention to everything going on in your mind and body.

“The goal is to sit quietly and pay close attention to where the mind travels without getting too caught up in the scenery.”

The study’s participants, who had not meditated before, were taken through a 20-minute open monitoring meditation exercise while the researchers measured their brain activity through electroencephalography – or EEG. They then completed a computerized distraction test.

Although the meditators did not have instant improvements to actual task performance, the study’s findings still propose promising potential of sustained meditation.

Potential for behavioural changes with long-term practice

Lin said: “The EEG can measure brain activity at the millisecond level, so we got precise measures of neural activity right after mistakes compared to correct responses.

“A certain neural signal occurs about half a second after an error called the error positivity, which is linked to conscious error recognition. We found that the strength of this signal is increased in the meditators relative to controls.”

Jason Moser, a co-author, added: “These findings are a strong demonstration of what just 20 minutes of meditation can do to enhance the brain’s ability to detect and pay attention to mistakes. It makes us feel more confident in what mindfulness meditation might really be capable of for performance and daily functioning right there in the moment.”

Lin said that the next phase of the study will be inclusive of a broader group of participants, testing different forms of meditation and determining whether changes in brain activity can translate to behavioural changes with more long-term practice.

Lin finalises: “It’s great to see the public’s enthusiasm for mindfulness, but there’s still plenty of work from a scientific perspective to be done to understand the benefits it can have, and equally importantly, how it actually works. It’s time we start looking at it through a more rigorous lens.”


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