MEDITATION and mindfulness: the words conjure images of yoga retreats and Buddhist monks. Though the concept originates in ancient Buddhist, Hindu and Chinese traditions, when it comes to experimental psychology, mindfulness is less about spirituality and more about concentration: the ability to quiet your mind, focus your attention on the present, and dismiss any distractions that come your way. The formulation dates from the work of the psychologist Ellen Langer, who demonstrated in the 1970s that mindful thought could lead to improvements on measures of cognitive function and even vital functions in older adults.
In 2011, researchers from the University of Wisconsin demonstrated that daily meditation-like thought could shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that is associated with what cognitive scientists call positive, approach-oriented emotional states — states that make us more likely to engage the world rather than to withdraw from it.
Participants were instructed to relax with their eyes closed, focus on their breathing, and acknowledge and release any random thoughts that might arise. Then they had the option of receiving nine 30-minute meditation training sessions over the next five weeks. When they were tested a second time, their neural activation patterns had undergone a striking leftward shift in frontal asymmetry — even when their practice and training averaged only 5 to 16 minutes a day.
But mindfulness goes beyond improving emotion regulation. An exercise in mindfulness can also help with that plague of modern existence: multitasking. Of course, we would like to believe that our attention is infinite, but it isn’t. Multitasking is a persistent myth. What we really do is shift our attention rapidly from task to task. Two bad things happen as a result. We don’t devote as much attention to any one thing, and we sacrifice the quality of our attention. When we are mindful, some of that attentional flightiness disappears as if of its own accord.
The concentration benefits of mindfulness training aren’t just behavioral; they’re physical. In recent years, mindfulness has been shown to improve connectivity inside our brain’s attentional networks, as well as between attentional and medial frontal regions — changes that save us from distraction. Mindfulness, in other words, helps our attention networks communicate better and with fewer interruptions than they otherwise would.
Mindfulness training has even been shown to affect the brain’s default network — the network of connections that remains active when we are in a so-called resting state — with regular meditators exhibiting increased resting-state functional connectivity and increased connectivity generally. After a dose of mindfulness, the default network has greater consistent access to information about our internal states and an enhanced ability to monitor the surrounding environment.
These effects make sense: the core of mindfulness is the ability to pay attention.