A recent study co-authored by Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Cat Norris and Dan Creem '16, in collaboration with researchers from Yale University, finds that meditation sessions as short as 10 minutes can improve the short-term cognitive attention of those inexperienced with the exercise.
The study, "Brief Mindfulness Meditation Improves Attention in Novices: Evidence From ERPs and Moderation by Neuroticism," which appeared in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, randomly divided college students into two groups: One listened to a 10-minute tape on meditation while the other listened to a recording about sequoia trees. The students then completed tasks designed to measure cognitive dexterity, and the study found that those who heard the meditation recording performed significantly better than their counterparts in the control group.
"Much past research has demonstrated that mindfulness meditation can have cognitive benefits, but these studies have primarily either looked at long-term practitioners or used extensive training, such as an immersive retreat or multiweek course on meditation," says Norris. "The fact that a brief, 10-minute tape can have similar effects was and is striking."
The inspiration came from an unlikely source: As a competitive runner, Creem would meditate with a teammate to calm his prerace nerves and wondered if short-term mindfulness could have other beneficial applications.
"Like many people, I believed that distance running was partially a mind game, getting yourself to ignore discomfort in order to achieve a goal," says Creem. "I wanted to do this experiment because I suspected meditation could be used to improve performance on some other tasks, but I didn't really know."
Creem and Nikhil Paladugu '16, a four-year member of the College's swim program, began investigating the question in a Research Design and Analysis course taught by Norris, who encouraged them to measure the effects of neuroticism on participant performance.
After the experiment produced significant results, Creem and Norris conducted a second study to replicate the findings and measure the brainwaves of their subjects. It strengthened the link between meditation and improved short-term cognitive attention with one notable exception: Individuals with the highest levels of neuroticism did not benefit from the meditation recording.
"Unfortunately, this is not a surprising effect, but it is both disheartening, as other studies have shown that they may ultimately benefit more from mindfulness meditation, and informative," says Norris. "It is likely that people higher in neuroticism require more guidance and more practice to see the same kind of results."
Further research as a result of the study could address questions such as why neuroticism moderates the benefits of short-term mediation and whether other activities, such as listening to music or using visualization techniques, have similar cognitive effects and why.
"There is lots of great research out there about which parts of the brain [meditation] affects, but one thing I'd really like to know is why certain breathing techniques or thinking strategies can have such powerful effects on people," says Creem. "What is it about meditation that makes people feel good and have better attention?"