An intense meditation retreat improved the controlled attention of those who had attended for five weeks, according to a new, waiting list-controlled longitudinal study. The study, published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, also found evidence that higher inflammatory activity was related to poorer attention control.
“In most of my work, I examine how stress and related factors affect cognitive processes, including executive functions, and the (over-generalized) general finding is that stress affects them,” said study author Grant Shields, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas and director of the SCAN Lab.
“I am increasingly interested in finding out what interventions or factors might improve the same cognitive processes, and meditation is often suggested as something that improves executive functions. I wanted to test that and test it exactly with a computational model. “
“I’m also interested in understanding how the immune system can affect cognitive processes. So I wanted to study the immune system processes that contribute to inflammation in relation to the other variables in this study,” Shields said.
In the study, 60 participants were randomly selected to either attend a three-month meditation retreat immediately or to serve as a waiting list control. Three months after the end of the first retreat, the control group members completed their own identical three-month meditation retreat. During the retreat, participants practiced Shamatha meditation for about six hours a day.
The researchers had participants perform a computerized flanker task to assess their ability to maintain focus approximately five weeks after the first retreat began. In the task, participants were asked to react quickly to a central target stimulus while ignoring irrelevant stimuli that flanked the target.
The team of scientists collected blood samples at the beginning, middle, and end of the retreat to measure inflammatory biomarkers.
The researchers observed significantly greater attention to target-relevant information – in this case the target stimulus – in those who had completed five weeks of meditation training compared to the control group on the waiting list. Similarly, those in the control group showed improvements in attention after completing their own meditation training.
The results show that “Meditation retreats that focus on controlled meditation practices improve the top-down (e.g., voluntary) ability to control your attention,” Shields told PsyPost. “While this exceeds the data, I would assume that this finding is likely to extend to other cognitive processes as well.”
“Furthermore, the immune system activity responsible for inflammation has been inversely linked to this cognitive ability, which means that interventions (e.g. diet) that downregulate inflammatory immune system activity can improve top-down control of attention (although we didn’t test this directly). ”Shields added.
“While we haven’t investigated which components of the intervention are most responsible for this effect, I would suspect that this is more due to the meditative practice itself than to other aspects of the retreat.”
But like all research, the study has some limitations.
“The main reservations are that we have not investigated which aspects of the intervention are responsible for this amplifying effect, nor have we experimentally manipulated the activity of the immune system to assess the effects of the immune system on cognition in such a way that we can draw causal conclusions “Explained Shields.
The research was carried out in collaboration with the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California at Davis.
“This excellent project was led by Cliff Saron’s team, and I was fortunate enough to be able to work with the data in hand when I reached out to Cliff with the ideas I wanted to test. I didn’t have a hand in study design, ”Shields said.
The study “Deconstructing the Effects of Concentration Meditation Practice on Interference Control: The Role of Controlled Attention and Inflammatory Activity” was authored by Grant S. Shields, Alea C. Skwara, Brandon G. King, Anthony P. Zanesco, and Firdaus S. Dhabhar and Clifford D. Saron.
(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)