A recent study finds that, for experienced meditators, participating in intensive meditation retreats has lasting beneficial effects.
What this means for the rest of us, however, is less clear.
Improved attention is one of several benefits attributed to intensive and long-term meditation practice, as determined by researchers working on the Shamatha Project, an ongoing investigation of the cognitive, psychological, and biological effects of meditation.
Participants in the project attended at least one three-month meditation retreat in 2007, meditating in a group twice a day and engaging in individual practice for about six hours a day.
Immediately after the retreats, participants took tests that measured focus, perceptual sensitivity, and response inhibition — markers of attention.
The meditators showed improvements in attention as well as in general psychological well-being and the ability to cope with stress.
Of the original 60 participants, 40 maintained their meditation practice long after the retreats. At the seven-year mark, these meditators were tested again.
The gains in attention from the retreat were partly maintained seven years later. Notably, the more diligent meditators showed no signs of typical age-related decline in sustained attention.
“Meditation is mental training,” Anthony Zanesco, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Miami and lead study author, told Healthline. “By doing a lot of it, you can improve your mental capacities over time — like weight training.”
“The premise is that meditation causes neuroplastic changes in the brain,” Zanesco added. “The brain tunes itself to its environment. The mental environment of a regular meditator is different than other people’s. Meditators are trained to be more focused and attentive.”
“What you spend your time doing is what shapes your brain and cognition,” Zanesco said. “These meditators spend hours in meditation.”
“We thought we might be able to see the corresponding changes in meditators’ mental capacities over time,” he added. “What we found was that those who kept up with their meditation practices maintained cognitive benefits from the retreats that they maintained for years.”
Might not work for everybody
The notion that meditation improves attention or arrests age-related decline in attention, however, is too simple — and likely incorrect.
“The study doesn’t show that the meditators improved their mental capacity since the retreats — even though they were practicing upwards of an hour a day,” Zanesco said. “Looking at it from that perspective, it’s a bummer, especially if we’re trying to slow cognitive aging through a meditation practice.”
“There are benefits of a meditation practice, but our study shows that gaining these benefits requires a lot of training. A prescriptive approach to meditation puts it in a less positive light as to whether that would be effective,” he noted.
While the health benefits of your physical exercise program are likely synonymous with your fitness goals (losing weight, for instance), a meditation practice for the sake of improving your attention — or to achieve any objective goal, for that matter — is unlikely to succeed.
According to Clifford Saron, PhD, research scientist at the University of California at Davis Center for Mind and Brain, co-author of the study, and head researcher of the Shamatha Project, several dimensions of cognitive capacity could be affected by a meditation practice, but the results may vary.
“With this study, we’ve created a piece of empirical work using a describable methodology assessing performance on a particular task,” Saron told Healthline. “We’ve articulated possible tendencies. But to make general statements — our general statements are clouds. ‘What are the effects of meditation?’ is the wrong question.”
“Instead, ask when ‘you’ sit and meditate, who is sitting down?” he added. “It’s important to understand the motivation for undertaking a meditation practice. A meditation practitioner needs a sense of inquiry about the nature of existence, about the conditions of life on this planet, and about our interconnectedness, and would need to have sensitivity to the prevalence of suffering and have an interest in alleviating that suffering in themselves and others.”
Zanesco’s endorsement of meditation is somewhat less daunting.
“If you’re interested in meditating, perhaps to manage stress or live a healthy lifestyle, there’s no harm in trying it,” Zanesco said. “We don’t yet know how much you would need to do to benefit. It’s not for everyone, and it shouldn’t replace going to the doctor and other approaches to managing your health, but it’s free.”