Friday, January 11, 2013

The power of concentration

I've been meaning to pass on this review by Konnikova on the salutary effects of mindfulness and concentration. It pulls together a number of observations that I have noted in previous MindBlog posts. Here are a few clips:

...mindfulness is less about spirituality and more about concentration: the ability to quiet your mind, focus your attention on the present, and dismiss any distractions that come your way...In 2011, researchers from the University of Wisconsin demonstrated that daily meditation-like thought could shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that is associated with what cognitive scientists call positive, approach-oriented emotional states — states that make us more likely to engage the world rather than to withdraw from it...
An exercise in mindfulness can also help with that plague of modern existence: multitasking...researchers led by a team from the University of Washington examined the effects of meditation training on multitasking in a real-world setting. They asked a group of human resources professionals to engage in the type of simultaneous planning they did habitually... After the multitasking free-for-all, participants were divided into three groups: one was assigned to an eight-week meditation course (two hours of instruction, weekly); another group didn’t take the course at first, but took it later; and the last group took an eight-week course in body relaxation. Everyone was put through a second round of frenzy...The only participants to show improvement were those who had received the mindfulness training.Not only did they report fewer negative emotions at the end of the assignment, but their ability to concentrate improved significantly. They could stay on task longer and they switched between tasks less frequently.
In recent years, mindfulness has been shown to improve connectivity inside our brain’s attentional networks, as well as between attentional and medial frontal regions — changes that save us from distraction. Mindfulness, in other words, helps our attention networks communicate better and with fewer interruptions than they otherwise would...In 2006, a team of psychologists demonstrated that the neural activation patterns of older adults (specifically, activation in the prefrontal cortex), began to resemble those of much younger subjects after just five one-hour training sessions on a task of attentional control. Their brains became more efficient at coordinating multiple tasks — and the benefit transferred to untrained activities, suggesting that it was symptomatic of general improvement.
Similar changes have been observed in the default network (the brain’s resting-state activity). In 2012, researchers from Ohio State University demonstrated that older adults who scored higher on mindfulness scales had increased connectivity in their default networks, specifically in two of the brain’s major information processing hubs. And while we already know that this kind of increased connectivity is a very good thing, there’s more to these particular results. The precise areas that show increased connectivity with mindfulness are also known to be pathophysiological sites of Alzheimer’s disease.

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