By Linda Carroll
An experimental app may help people learn to meditate, which in turn yields improvements in attention span and working memory, a new study suggests.
Over the course of six weeks a group of young adults who used the app, which is designed to tailor the length of sessions through interactions with its user, were able to increase the amount of time spent in meditation.
That increase in meditation time appears to have produced an increase in attention span and working memory, researchers report in Nature Human Behaviour, June 3.
"We found a new way of delivering an ancient practice in a very easily digestible way," said the study's lead author David Ziegler, a director of the Neuroscape research program at the University of California, San Francisco. "People on their own can find ways of approaching meditation, so they don't have to go on a two-week meditation retreat."
The payback from learning to meditate is improvement in the ability to focus attention for longer and longer periods of time, Ziegler said, adding that future experiments may look at the app's impact on people with attention problems, such as those with ADHD and the elderly.
The test in young people was meant mostly as a proof of concept, Ziegler said. "We were surprised and impressed with the size of the effect," he added. "We didn't expect to see a big movement in healthy 20-year-olds."
Ziegler and his colleagues tested the new app called MediTrain, developed at Neuroscape, in a trial that included 59 volunteers aged 18 to 35. Participants were randomly assigned to use MediTrain or to a control group that used a different type of app, such as one that taught a foreign language.
Those who ended up in the MediTrain group were first taught about meditation through a recorded set of instructions given by Jack Kornfield, a meditation teacher who co-founded Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California.
They were then told to use the app, which instructed them to focus on their breathing without allowing their minds to wander. "They start with a really low dose, about 15 to 20 seconds," Ziegler explained. "If they can maintain focus for that amount of time, then the program makes the next trial more difficult by extending the time. If the person has a hard time, then the program makes it easier the next time by shortening the time."
Those adjustments are essentially controlled by the user's responses. "They hear a chime that tells them to focus on their breath," Ziegler said. "Then they are asked if they were able to maintain focus. This also teaches them to be introspective about their attention and where it is focused."
Essentially, Ziegler said, the app works like a meditation coach. And a good coach, apparently. On the first day, participants could only focus for an average of 20 seconds. After 25 days of training, that rose to an average of six minutes.
After six weeks, all the volunteers were given tests that evaluated attention span and working memory. Not only did the MediTrain participants score 20% to 35% higher on those tests than the control group, Ziegler says, their scores also appeared to vary with the length of time they were able to meditate. In other words, those who could focus the longest on their breathing did best on the tests of attention and working memory.
The new study is "really novel," said Layla Banihashemi, a neuroscientist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Pennsylvania.
Banihashemi compared the process of learning meditation with the app to weight lifting. "If you can't lift the weight the program prescribes, then the weight has to be lowered," she said. "Every time the mind wanders you have to bring your attention back to your breath. And that's how meditation can build capacity for sustained attention."
Given the improved attention in young volunteers, Banihashemi suspects that the app might be helpful for people starting out with less ability. "To the extent that plasticity is still there, these interventions could certainly help to improve that capacity."
Nature Human Behav 2019.
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