Meditation Retreats

Meditation’s lasting power | University of California

Short Summary

  • The participants had shown improvements in attention and psychological well-being after intensive meditation retreats
  • The improvement in attention continued after seven years

According to a new study published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, the skills for maintaining alertness developed through intense meditation training persist for up to seven years later. The study is based on the Shamatha Project, a comprehensive study of the cognitive, psychological, and biological effects of meditation conducted by researchers at the University of California, Davis, Center for Mind and Brain.

Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies is teaching a class during one of the original retreats for the Shamatha project.
Photo credit: UC Davis

“This study is the first to provide evidence that intense and sustained meditation practice is associated with lasting improvements in sustained attention and inhibition of reaction, with the potential to alter the longitudinal trajectories of cognitive changes over the course of a person’s life,” said the lead author Anthony Zanesco, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Miami who started working on the project before completing his PhD. Program in Psychology at UC Davis. The project is led by Clifford Saron, a scientist at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain, in collaboration with a large group of researchers.

The Shamatha Project is the most comprehensive longitudinal study of intense meditation to date and has drawn the attention of scholars and Buddhist scholars alike, including the Dalai Lama, who sponsored the project. It examines the effects of two intense meditation retreats held at Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado in 2007. The study followed 60 experienced meditators who participated in these three month meditation retreats and were continuously tutored in meditation techniques by Buddhist scholar, author, and teacher B. Alan Wallace of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. They attended group meditation sessions twice a day and practiced individually for about six hours a day.

Profits that are sustained in regular meditators

Immediately after the study, participants in the meditation retreat showed improvements in attention, as well as general mental well-being and the ability to cope with stress.

Since the retreat, the researchers have reexamined the participants after six and 18 months, and most recently after seven years. The 40 participants who remained in the study at this final follow-up all stated that they had continued some form of meditation practice for a period of seven years, averaging about an hour a day.

UC Davis researcher Cliff Saron discussed his work with the Dalai Lama during a visit to India in 2009.
Photo credit: UC Davis

The new study shows that some of these attentional gains observed immediately after the withdrawal were maintained seven years later, especially among older participants who had maintained a more diligent meditation practice over the seven years. Compared to those who practiced less, these participants maintained cognitive gains and did not show typical patterns of age-related decline in sustained attention.

The lifestyle or personality of the participants may also have contributed to the observations, Zanesco noted. The benefits of meditation seemed to have plateaued after the retreat even among the most practiced participants: This could have an impact on how much meditation can actually affect human perception and how the brain works, he said.

Other authors on the latest paper include Brandon King and Katherine MacLean of the UC Davis Department of Psychology and the Center for Mind and Brain. The Fetzer Institute, the John Templeton Foundation, and the Hershey Family Foundation, as well as numerous donors, donated key funds for the original study and subsequent data analysis and follow-up.

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