Mindfulness and Attention Control

The attention economy – that’s what they call it in Silicon Valley. This term, “attention economy”, was coined by Herbert Simon, a psychologist and economist. It refers to the notion that our attention is a finite resource, and a constant source of competition. Consumer technology and the influence of social media means that the majority of us live remarkably distracted lives, under the guise of “multitasking” and “productivity”. The value of attention is in the ability to focus on a single task, but technological advances that allow us to communicate with one another at an instant, access infinite amounts of information, and constantly entertain ourselves, encourage the exact opposite. And the neuroscience bears out this reality too – when we multitask, we are really just engaging in a process of consistent task switching, which is both ineffective and cognitively expensive. What we really need is a return of “single-tasking”, says neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley of UCSF, who has recently published the book The Distracted Mind. Gazzaley argues that we are being faced with “a critical need to manage our lives more intentionally in the increasingly complex environment that we inhabit”1.

So, what does this all have to do with mindfulness?

Mindfulness has long been described as a technique that can improve attention control, but what does the science say about how effective it is in moderating attention performance? In a recent meta-analysis2 published in the journal Mindfulness, Paul Verhaeghen, a professor of clinical psychology, summarizes 75 studies investigating the role of mindfulness meditation and trait mindfulness in attention control. Studies assessing mindfulness interventions, long-term mindfulness meditation and trait mindfulness were all included. The analyses show three important findings. First, people being taught mindfulness for the first time show improved attention. Furthermore, this was supported by the finding that long term meditators have above average attention when compared to meditation naïve participants. Finally, trait mindfulness is correlated with objective measures of attention. However, the magnitude of the effect size was small. 

Interestingly, amongst the intervention studies, only meditation interventions that involved a focused-attention component where participants focus on a single object of meditation (such as the breath) yielded significant effect sizes. Verhaeghen points out that this is somewhat unsurprising as focused attention meditation most closely mirrors the act of single tasking. So, if building your attention-control muscle is an important reason why you engage in meditation, practicing with a primary focus may be a good way to achieve that. Additionally, the analysis reported that increasing the length of mindfulness sessions is negatively correlated with attention, while increasing the number of sessions that participants engage in has positive impacts on attention. So, meditating every day for 10 minutes may be better for attention control than a single hour of meditation on a Sunday (for example). 

While this meta-analysis is limited by all of the shortfalls of current mindfulness research (of which there are many), it does seem to show that attention and mindfulness practice are reliably associated. As the demands for our attention become increasingly overwhelmed by modern life, engaging in a mindfulness practice may be a powerful way to take back some control over our attention, and create a little bit more intention in our days. 

(1) Taking control of your distracted mind. Thrive global. 2016 Nov 30. Available from: https://medium.com/thrive-global/taking-control-of-your-distracted-mind-b87256763001 
(2) Verhaeghen, P. Mindfulness as Attention Training: Meta-Analyses on the Links Between Attention Performance and Mindfulness Interventions, Long-Term Meditation Practice, and Trait Mindfulness. Mindfulness (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-020-01532-1

This article was written by Zoe O’Neill, a medical student at McGill University and member of the Mindful Medical Learner Team.

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