Meditation: Focus On-demand
The wandering mind, the restless gaze, the lure of a distraction… they get in our way when we want to do something well or do it at all. It’s only when we put our minds to something, that we really get anywhere. The ability to devote sustained, focussed attention to any one thing is an increasingly rare quality in an age when multiple screens, tasks and demands tug at us at from moment to moment. The evidence for meditation shows that one of its key benefits is to develop the ability to focus, making it easier for us to pay attention where and when we want to.
4 days, 20 minutes a day – that could be all it takes
Many studies have shown that long term meditation practice enhances attention processes, but in 2009 a group of psychologists in the USA tested whether just 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation over 4 consecutive days can have an effect. They invited a group of 63 university students and split them into 2 groups; one group were guided through 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation over 4 days, where they learned to focus on the breath, and the control group listened to audio recordings of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit for 4 days. Tests were done before and after the process to measure their mood, memory, visual attention, attention processing, and vigilance.
The results showed that both listening to The Hobbit and learning meditation improved mood levels after the 4 days, but only the group learning mindfulness meditation did much better on cognitive tests: “ten times better on one challenging test that involved sustaining the ability to focus, while holding other information in mind.”
Subsequent studies have corroborated the positive effect of meditation on attention span and focus.
How does it work?
At any given moment our minds register a huge amount of white noise through our senses, and on top of that there are multiple thoughts and emotions dancing in the background. To start any meditation, the first step is to quieten the mind, and turn the volume down on the white noise. This can be done in different ways, but always involves focussing one’s attention on something, either a picture, a sound, through a mental body scan of sensations, or only one sensation such as breathing. Focussing in this way on one clear sensation helps to direct mental resources on this only, away from the white noise. Usually, and especially for beginners, this can be the hardest part of learning to meditate – our minds get pulled away by some thought or sensation before we can settle down. This is natural and the way to deal with it is to acknowledge that the mind has wandered, and slowly bring it back to the point of focus. When it gets distracted again, we recognise it has wandered again, and bring it back again. And that’s it…doing this repeatedly, over minutes, days and weeks, develops our ability to recognise distractions and direct our minds back to where we want to focus.
After this initial process to calm the mind, different meditation practices proceed with different techniques, depending on the desired objective of the meditation.
If we stick to it, focussing becomes effortless
Brain scans of long-term meditators show the longer we meditate, the more effortless it becomes to direct focus and attention at will. In the study by Brefczynski-Lewis, J.A. et al. 2007, fMRI scans were taken of novices and experts of focussed attention meditation (a type of meditation entirely devoted to focussing on one subject for the duration of the exercise). It showed that long-term meditators with an average of 19,000 hours of meditation had more activation than novices in the parts of the brain associated with engaging attention, but those with an average of 44,000 hours of meditation had less activation in these parts. So while meditation develops the ability to direct sustained attention at will, with extensive practice this ability requires minimal resource from our brain, and so becomes effortless.
We also get better at disengaging from things when we want to
If we get better at focussing on what we want, it also follows that we will get better at disengaging our focus from what we don’t want. Studies on mindfulness meditation have already shown that with continued practice we are better able to create distance between ourselves and thoughts, feelings and sensations that would otherwise cause distress (See Mindfulness meditation stops rumination, a danger to mental health). Eventually it enables us to command attention, keep the focus, and disengaging at will with minimal effort.
Some interesting resources on Attention
- The Head of Research at Headspace explains why improving focus and attention is important
- The author of “Emotional Intelligence” writes his latest book on why Focus is the hidden driver of success
 MacLean, K. A., et al (2010). Intensive Meditation Training Improves Perceptual Discrimination and Sustained Attention. Psychological Science, 21(6), 829-839, Jha A.P., Krompinger J., & Baime M.J. (2007). Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cognitive Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, 109-119.
 Zeidan et al. Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition, 2010; DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2010.03.01
 University of North Carolina at Charlotte (2010, April 19). Brief meditative exercise helps cognition.ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 5, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/04/100414184220.htm
 Mrazek, M., et al 2013, “Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering” Psychological Science May 2013 vol. 24 no. 5 776-781
 Brefczynski-Lewis, J.A. et al. (2007) Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 104, 11483–11488
 Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(4), 163