Meditation is a practice that can generate much mental and physical well-being. This can range from improvements in happiness, immune health and cognition. One aspect of cognition that seems to be improved is a phenomenon known as the attentional blink. The term was coined by J. Raymond and K. Shapiro in 1992 when they began to notice that there was a limit to human information processing when visual stimuli was presented in rapid succession (Raymond et al., 1992). When a second stimulus is presented 500ms after the first stimuli, the second stimuli is not processed completely and the individual never becomes consciously aware of it (Shapiro et al., 1997). Due to this observation, it was theorized that the brain is using most of its attentional resources to process the first stimuli, and therefore cannot allocate the limited resources available to bring the second stimuli to our conscious awareness (Shapiro et al., 1997). Though the exact mechanism of how this bottleneck occurs is still unknown, research has suggested that it most likely results from an interaction between the fronto-parietal and visual cortex of the brain (Marois & Ivanoff, 2005). Additionally, although the sensory-encoding and response-selection processes are distinct within the brain, there is evidence to suggest that they draw from the same central resource (Garner, 2014). Regardless, despite an unknown exact mechanism, it is clear that the human brain is limited in its speed to process information and bring it to our conscious awareness.
Interestingly, the initial research on the subject found that attentional blink time was not constant across individuals (Raymond et al., 1992), indicative that the processing speed varies amongst individuals and is subject to possible improvement through training (Jones, 2007; Slagter et al., 2007). Meditation is one such training technique that has been shown to reduce the attentional blink time (Slagter et al., 2007). In this study by Slagter et al. in 2007, participants went through a 3-month meditation retreat involving 10-12 hours of meditation per day. At the end of the training, the investigators not only observed smaller attentional blink times from the meditation practitioners, but detected reduced brain resource allocation towards the first stimuli (Slagter et al., 2007). This has led to the suggestion that meditation is able to improve attentional blink times through developing a faster detachment time from processed stimuli (Roca & Vazquez, 2020; Slagter et al., 2007). Additional studies have been able to reproduce similar results with 3-month training programs of only 30-45 minutes of meditation per day (Roca & Vazquez, 2020). The effects of this training can be quite substantial. As an example, when we grow to the age of about 40 and onward, attentional blink speed worsens over time (Georgiou-Karistianis et al., 2007). However, a study of both novice and experienced meditators showed that not only do meditators have reduced blink time, but older individuals who practice meditation have shorter blink times than younger non-practitioners (van Leeuwen et al., 2009). Highly indicative that meditation is capable of counteracting the cognitive deficits that tend to occur with age.
The study of the attentional blink has also developed into observations of how we process emotional stimuli. A study by Schwabe et al. in 2011 found that attentional blink time was increased when the first stimuli was emotionally stimulating, whereas the attentional blink time was decreased when the second stimuli invoked strong emotion (Schwabe et al., 2011). Suggesting that the human brain prioritizes the allocation of mental resources to stimuli that evoke emotion. To understand how meditation would affect our emotional attention processing, Roca et al. in 2020 conducted an attentional blink study where the stimuli were emotional faces. Participants in this study practiced meditation for 3-months, where they meditated for 30-45 minutes per day (Roca & Vazquez, 2020). They found that not only did attentional blink time shorten, but the identification of positive and neutral emotions was more than the detection of negative emotions (Roca & Vazquez, 2020). Indicating that meditation decreases the bias of attention toward negative emotions, helping individuals focus on the good rather than the bad.
The brain is limited in its ability to process information from the outside world. The more one dwells on a particular stimulus, the less resources one can allocate to others. Therefore, in order to enhance one’s ability to present in the now, one most learn how to detach quickly from stimuli. This can be especially difficult when the stimuli are emotional. One method of such training is through the practice of mindfulness meditation. A key aspect of this training is to practice a non-judgmental awareness of all thoughts and feelings while attempting to maintain focus on something such as the breath. Doing so can help us be more present in the moment, and aid in our attentional blink times. This not only improves our ability to live mindfully in the present, but can result in improving our compassion towards others by being aware of their emotions and being present with them. Additionally, being more aware of the positive emotions of others rather than focusing on the negative is likely to provide an improved attitude toward the self and life in general. A reduced attentional blink is likely to provide many additional mental, physical and social benefits. Meditation is not the only method of improving attention though. Provided here is a link to a website that provides attention exercises for you to practice: https://www.brainhq.com/why-brainhq/about-the-brainhq-exercises/attention/
Garner, K. (2014). Training the Multitasking Brain. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.14264/uql.2015.199
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Slagter, H. A., Lutz, A., Greischar, L. L., Francis, A. D., Nieuwenhuis, S., Davis, J. M., & Davidson, R. J. (2007). Mental Training Affects Distribution of Limited Brain Resources. PLoS Biology, 5(6), e138. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050138
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Focused Attention Meditation & What Makes Us Happy with Celia Roberts
5 February 2021, 9:30am – 12:30pm, $108