MIND
June 11, 2019

Modern Tech, Ancient Practice

A responsive meditation app helps boost attention among those who need it most.

If you’re intimidated by the idea of sitting silently in meditation to focus and train your attention, a new mobile app may make things much easier. An interactive program, called MediTrain, can improve attention, even if, at the start, you are just practicing in increments of just a few seconds or minutes throughout the day, a study finds.

Young adult participants, 18 to 35 years old, used the app. But first, the people in the study heard how to pay attention to one’s breath from a well-known meditation teacher and author on the paper, Jack Kornfield.

The results are especially encouraging since the study involved millennials, who are often immersed in digital technology and whose ability to pay attention for extended periods may suffer because of it.

Then they began using the app-based program on an iPad which prompted them throughout the day to practice the breath meditation for 10-15 seconds. After each session, the participants indicated to the app whether they had been successful in paying attention for the whole time or not. If they had, the next session would be slightly longer than the previous one; if they hadn’t, it would be shorter.

When they first started using the app, the near 60 participants in the University of California San Francisco study were able to pay attention for about 20 seconds on average; by the end of the 30-day study period, their average was up to about six minutes.

And tests of attention reflected this change: compared to people in a control group, who did not have the training, those who did the mediation training performed better on tests of attention and short-term memory. They also showed changes in brain activity in areas in the front of the brain which are linked to attentional control.

Part of the program’s effectiveness, the authors believe, is due to the fact that it requires the user to reflect on his or her own progress, and it adjusts to how they’re doing in real time.

Gaining Focus with a New Take on an Old Practice

“Not only do you learn how to maintain focus on your breath, but you are also required to introspect on how well you're able to do that” said senior author, Adam Gazzaley, in a statement. “We believe that's part of the active ingredient of this treatment.”

The results are especially encouraging since the study involved millennials, who are often immersed in digital technology and whose ability to pay attention for extended periods may suffer because of it. Using this ancient practice, delivered in a cutting-edge way, may be just the strategy to help address the issue.

A more personal and accessible way to deliver focused meditation.

“This is not like any meditation practice that exists, as far as we are aware,” said Gazzaley. “We took an ancient experiential treatment of focused meditation, reformulated it and delivered it through a digital technology, and improved attention span in millennials, an age group that is intimately familiar with the digital world, but also faces multiple challenges to sustained attention.”

Of course, it’s not just millennials who suffer from attention problems. Children and adults of any age may also benefit from learning how to better control their focus, as many of us toggle between screens and multiple tasks throughout the day.

Most people struggle to concentrate in the face of challenges to our attention, particularly those posed by cell phones, email and a seemingly endless supply of digital entertainment, Gazzaley explained. “What we've done here is flip this story around by creating and studying a digital delivery system that makes cognitive benefits of traditional focused attention meditation more personalized, accessible and deliverable.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
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