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Can Loving-Kindness Meditation Increase Positive Affect and Attentional Control?

grumpy cat

Finals period: a time when we question our life choices. “Why didn’t I start studying for this test last week?” “Why did I start writing this essay the day before it is due?” By finals period, most of us are already pretty burnt out from the semester and it can become increasingly difficult to concentrate on work. As Jim Terhune mentioned in his last email to Colby students, we often feel grumpier around this time of year. Recent research in the field of psychology suggests that practicing loving-kindness meditation may actually improve our ability to form positive attitudes and to control attention, a much needed cognitive resource during finals period.

Meditation, historically used in Eastern spiritual practices, has recently become more popular in Western culture. Although it does not have a universally accepted definition, meditation in psychology research usually refers to a mind-body practice that focuses on attention, awareness, and self-regulation. Recent research suggests that meditation may lead to more positive health outcomes, such as better immune functioning and greater psychological well-being (Kok et al., 2013). Mental health professionals have even started to incorporate meditation into their treatment programs. For example, Jon Kabat-Zinn developed a cognitive behavioral therapy program, called Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), based on mindfulness meditation, body awareness, and yoga. Even though much of the research focuses on mindfulness meditation, some research has found a relationship between loving-kindness meditation and positive health outcomes (Kok et al., 2013).

Loving-Kindness-meditation

Loving-kindness meditation specifically encourages positive affect toward the self and others. Affect refers to the physiological and psychological experience of emotions and positive affect is associated with positive health outcomes, such as decreased pain (Cohen & Pressman, 2006). Loving-kindness meditation may also impact affective learning, which occurs when repeated exposure to a neutral stimulus creates a positive or negative association with that stimulus. In other words, affective learning refers to the formation of positive or negative attitudes toward previously neutral stimuli. For example, Cacioppo et al. found that negative attitudes toward pronounceable, non-word stimuli can be learned through classical conditioning (1992).

Loving-kindness meditation may also impact our ability to control attentional resources. Attention deals with the selection of certain stimuli in the environment and the concentration of our cognitive resources on those stimuli. The idea of selective attention suggests that we can concentrate on a certain stimulus while ignoring other stimuli in the environment; divided attention suggests that we can also divide our attention between several different stimuli. Filter theories explain the process of selective attention by comparing it to a filter that sifts through stimuli either before (early selection) or after (late selection) perception. The theory of attenuation explains attention as a radio that turns down the volume of sensory signal strength from unimportant stimuli in the environment (Kellogg 2007).

Hunsinger et al. found that loving-kindness meditation positively impacted the ability to form positive attitudes and the ability to control attention (2012). 97 undergraduate students from a New England University completed two tasks: ideograph-pairings, which measured affective learning, and the beloved Stroop test, which measured cognitive control. For the first task, Hunsinger et al. (2012) paired 9 Chinese ideographs with positive, negative, or neutral pictures and asked participants to rate how much they liked each ideograph (1-7 scale) after ten exposures. The second task consisted of compatible and incompatible trials of the color-naming Stroop task. In the compatible trials, the words “red” and “green” were presented in their respective hues against a white background. In the incompatible trials, the same words were presented in opposing hues. Participants were told to press the key (red or green) that corresponded with the presented hue, so more cognitive control was needed for the incompatible trials because they needed to ignore the sensory input of the words and instead process the semantic meaning.

Stroop Test

The participants in the loving-kindness meditation group completed three 20-minute guided meditation sessions, which trained them on associating a positive affect with specific family members and friends. Hunsinger et al. (2012) found that the loving-kindness meditation impacted performance on both tasks. The participants who were trained in loving-kindness meditation associated more positivity, but not negativity, with the ideographs in task one. These participants also performed better on the Stroop test. They correctly categorized words faster than the control group during both the compatible and the incompatible trials. In fact, their response times for the two types of trials were closer together, which means that the mismatch between hue and word did not impact their responses as much as it impacted the responses in the control group.

The results of this study suggest that even short-term training in loving-kindness meditation may influence our affective learning and attentional control. Since loving-kindness meditation encourages positive attitudes towards neutral, and even negative, stimuli, even a short amount of training may effectively increase our ability to form positive attitudes. This type of meditation also improves one’s ability to control attention, so training may either help to lower the volume of distracting stimuli in the attenuation model or help to sift through the distracting stimuli in the filter theories. Future research should look into how students could benefit from loving-kindness meditation in educational settings. Perhaps training students and practicing it regularly in school could improve their control of the attentional resources that are so crucial for learning in the classroom. Could 20 minutes of loving-kindness meditation each day during finals week help Colby students control their attention to better study for exams? These findings suggest that our affect and cognition may benefit from it.

 

References:

Cohen, S., & Pressman, S. D. (2006). Positive Affect and Health. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15.3, 122-125.

Hunsinger, M., Livingston, R., & Isbell, L. (2013). The impact of loving-kindness meditation on affective learning and cognitive control. Mindfulness, 4, 275-280.

Kellogg, R. T. (2007). Attention.  Fundamentals of cognitive psychology. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.

Kok, B. E., Waugh, C. E., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Meditation and Health: The Search for Mechanisms of Action. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7.1, 27-39.

  1. September 25th, 2014 at 12:04 | #1

    I really enjoyed this post because it surfaced two themes that I know fairly well (Positive Affect and Attention Control) but had never thought of linking together! I was initially interested in this article because meditation is something I’ve tried (and, often struggled with) many times. I always knew the impacts of stress reduction and positive affect, but I didn’t realize how cognitive control could also be significantly influenced through loving-kindness meditation.

    I find it particularly interesting that participants performed better on the Stroop task, which measures cognitive control. As we’ve discussed in class, the Stroop task works because it takes advantage of the automaticity in word recognition. Because the act of recognizing words has become critical to our survival as social beings, we practice it often and have become extremely good at it. So, there must be something about meditation that interferes with that automaticity. One possibility is that meditation helps us practice our attentional “spotlight” focusing on one thing while blocking out other tempting thoughts. This skill could be applied to the Stroop task, having the skills to narrow that spotlight to only focus on the colors and not the words. Another possibility is that meditation could aid in the ability for our brains to be flexible, making it easier for us to control our own levels of automaticity.

    Overall, the link between positive affect and attentional control in this post really made me consider the interconnectedness of the brain’s functions. Future research should be focused around the neurological effects of meditation as well. In particular, the effect of meditation on the anterior cingulate gyrus should be studied because it is believed to be the primary region in automaticity inhibition. If meditation strengthens that region of the brain, it would not be surprising that participants who practice perform better in the Stoop task.

  2. May 12th, 2014 at 11:18 | #2

    Short and sweet. There isn’t much else to say aside from the fact that your analysis of the topic is simple enough and direct to the point. You do a very good job at leading the reader on throughout the piece. It felt as though I were reading a published news article. My only point of criticism is that the end felt too abrupt.

    You begin slowly by setting context and drawing the reader in with relevant content. Just as well, you ease into discussing loving-kindness meditation and the research behind it. The pace is kept very well up until the final paragraph where you stipulate your findings and end on a speculative not, which is fine. At the end, I wasn’t feeling confused or lost. But I felt like there was more the wasn’t said. Perhaps maybe breaking the final paragraph into two separate ideas, one idea being the findings and another being the implications/application, and fleshing out the latter would facilitate a more satisfying end to your piece. It’s nit-picky, I know. But it’s only point of constructive criticism on an otherwise well-written, fluid piece. Great job.

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