A Nation Distracted
(Page 6 of 7)
Just two decades ago, no career-minded scientist would have pursued this work. Now, gleanings from contemplative brains routinely make headlines. Hospitals offer mindfulness-based stress reduction programs. Neuroscientists are studying nascent efforts to bring meditation into classrooms. Attention, however, is a new focus in this budding subfield of brain science, and so the meeting hall was packed as neuroscientist Amishi Jha took the stage to relate her landmark findings.
Jha compared 17 novices taking an eight-week introductory course in meditation with 17 experienced meditators studying at a one-month retreat. Before and after the courses, she gave them Posner’s Attention Network Test, a 20-minute computer exam that measures efficiency in each of the three networks. The veterans demonstrated better executive attention than newcomers at the start, then showed greater improvement in alerting after their retreat. The novices made robust gains in orienting, suggesting to Jha that meditation might sharpen focus first, then a wider wakeful awareness.
But more than the training effects, what surprised Jha was rare evidence of carryover: Meditation boosted people’s prowess on laboratory tasks wholly distinct from the specific practice of mindful breathing. “It would be as if learning to ride a bike helped you be a better tightrope walker,” Jha told me. In her study, eight weeks of meditation training boosted scores on tests of a type of orienting that involves spatial skills.
“The whole point is generalizability in training,” breathlessly related Jha, who found in meditation a few years ago the cognitive booster rocket she desperately needed to cope with life’s stresses. “If you spend 30 minutes a day and it makes a difference in the quality of your attention—that is powerful.”
We are not born with a fixed allotment of focus, William James. We’re on the verge of learning how to meet head-on a distraction-charged world. Mounting evidence of our attentional malleability, for example, is inspiring Posner and his colleague Mary Rothbart to urge schools to train children in attention. If adult focus can be sharpened in just eight weeks, why not tackle young networks at their most sensitive stages of development?
Posner and Rothbart have developed five kid-friendly exercises that tone executive attention skills including self-control, planning, and observation. Six-year-olds trained in seven half-hour sessions showed a pattern of brain wave activity similar to that of adults and a marked gain in executive attention. Four-year-olds jumped six points on IQ tests, driven by sharp upswings in culture-free aspects of intelligence, such as fluid thinking and nonverbal reasoning. Among both groups, those worst off in attentional skills at the outset gained the most. The implications are vivid.
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