If you can’t concentrate on a book, can’t sit quietly for 15 minutes or can barely make it through a blog post, then you’re not alone.
It’s the modern way–and we hear more and more people saying their attention span and memory are being eroded.
Maybe, they say, it’s the internet, or maybe it’s down to genes and personality.
Whatever the cause, a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science demonstrates that it can change.
In the research, 48 participants were assigned either to a mindfulness class or to a course on nutrition (Mrazek et al., 2013).
Both courses were only two weeks long and the classes met for 45 minutes over 8 sessions.
Students in the mindfulness group were asked to practice mindfulness outside the class and to apply what they’d learned to their everyday life.
The results of the study were striking. Those who’d practised mindfulness:
- had better short-term memory,
- improved their score on a verbal reasoning test,
- and experienced less mind-wandering.
The researchers discovered that it was the last effect–the reduction in mind-wandering–that was responsible for the improved memory and reasoning.
It stands to reason: when your mind isn’t distracted and jumping around so much, it’s easier to keep things in short-term memory and to give a task your full attention.
The lead author, Michael Mrazek, explained:
“This is the most complete and rigorous demonstration that mindfulness can reduce mind-wandering, one of the clearest demonstrations that mindfulness can improve working memory and reading, and the first study to tie all this together to show that mind-wandering mediates the improvements in performance.”
Practice makes a perfect mind
One of the fascinating aspects of the study is that people’s scores increased on a test that is supposed to be uncoachable.
The test, the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) is a standardised test for fixed abilities.
But, if people are improving their scores after such a short intervention, it’s demonstrating that these kinds of cognitive abilities are not as fixed as is generally thought.
The second fascinating aspect of the study is the broad effect of the intervention.
Typically, people who do ‘brain training’ exercises get better at those specific brain training exercises but not much else.
For example, if you do loads of Sudoku or crossword puzzles, you get better at those specific activities, but these improvements generally doesn’t reach into other areas.
But here a mindfulness intervention was having a broad effect on memory, verbal skills and concentration.
The reason it works is because it dampens down mind wandering, our natural tendency to daydream, time-travel and generally goof off.
Psychologists call the neural structures that underlie this effect the ‘default network’.
The mind’s ‘default network’ is not a bad thing in itself, but it shouldn’t interfere when we want to concentrate:
“…mindfulness training leads to reduced activation of the default network, a collection of brain regions that typically show greater activation at rest than during externally directed cognitive tasks. Both long-term meditators and individuals who have completed 2 weeks of mindfulness training show reduced activation of the default network.” (Mrazek et al., 2013).
The six steps to mindfulness
For those of you who’d like to try this at home, here’s what the mindfulness classes involved:
“(a) sitting in an upright posture with legs crossed and gaze lowered,
(b) distinguishing between naturally arising thoughts and elaborated thinking,
(c) minimizing the distracting quality of past and future concerns by reframing them as mental projections occurring in the present,
(d) using the breath as an anchor for attention during meditation,
(e) repeatedly counting up to 21 consecutive exhalations
(f ) allowing the mind to rest naturally rather than trying to suppress the occurrence of thoughts.”
- Now try these 10 mindfulness exercises.
Image credit: Julian Coutinho