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Laser Focus: How Meditation Can Improve Attention

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Could meditation do this to our brains? Source: knowyourmeme.com

Doesn’t meditation just seem great? If you’re anything like me, you have tried it a couple of times but never got the habit to stick. Maybe you’re already meditating regularly, and if so, you have my respect. For us failing meditators of the world, we’ve all seen the glorious images of peaceful meditators with pristine lifestyles. It’s nice to romanticize ourselves sitting and being one with the moment. And sure, we know that it might be great for our mental well-being, but who has the time? You may ask yourself: why would I sit there and focus hard when I could not do that? And fair enough, you don’t really have to, and I’m not going to try and convince you. But I want to lay out the science for myself because I’m curious about how powerful meditation can be. I wonder how realistic the romantic images of monks and yogis are. Maybe, just maybe, if nothing else can get me to meditate, the wonders of science can! I’m looking for the cold, hard facts on what meditation can do. Specifically, since I’ve become aware of the importance of attention: I want to know if I can get outrageously good focus from meditating—laser focus.

Meditation is about attention. One might say attention is everything, especially if you’ve studied cognitive psychology. If you don’t pay attention to something, you’ll never truly experience it. I mean, is something even there if you don’t notice it? I would argue not. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, it doesn’t make a sound (don’t fact-check me on this one). From cognitive research, we know that human attention is extremely limited. Any goal you have requires the ability to direct and hold your attention toward it. While we direct our attention, we know that we miss many details around us entirely because of attention’s limitations. If we don’t pay attention to something, we won’t encode and remember it either. Having limited attention is excellent for making our brains use less energy (by carefully choosing where to use it), but it means we miss a lot of details. To make the most of our day-to-day lives, we need to be able to focus on what matters. When we get distracted or attempt to split our attention to other things, we perform worse and remember less. Having limited attention leaves us in a bit of a pickle. Luckily for us, as I will discover with you, it seems that meditation can give us that boost in attention and give us unlimited power. Ok, maybe not unlimited power, but meditation changes the brain and improves our attention. So by how much?

So meditation plus attention, what’s the deal? Right off the bat, practicing meditation changes your brain structure and activity. We know this because we’ve been blessed by research. Cognitive researchers like to use the Stroop task to investigate how specific brain processes work. In the Stroop task, participants are presented with the words of colors that are either written in the same color (congruent), a different color (incongruent), or see an unrelated word in color (neutral).

Three different stimulus conditions in the Stroop task: neutral,... |  Download Scientific Diagram
The Stroop task pairings. source:https://www.testable.org/psychology-experiments/executive-function/stroop-task/

Participants are asked quickly to name the color the word is displayed in. when people see an incongruent word, they automatically read it and fight against the urge to say the word conflicting with the color. Since our silly brains try to help us, we have to use cognitive energy to control our automatic word recognition. One study looked at how meditators perform on the Stroop task compared to non-meditators with fancy brain scans. The researchers found that while performance was similar, regular meditators showed different brain activation (Kosaza et al.) Specifically, they had more activation in the brain areas used for congruent word-color pairs and less for incongruent pairs, but meditators had less activation overall across the board. These results showed that the meditators needed to use fewer brain regions overall to accomplish the same task! That means they focused their attention with less effort. The idea of efficiency intrigues me because attention would typically be quite effortful. Results so far seem like the start of something good…

We know that meditation can give us more bang for our buck by performing the same with less activation. The meditators in that study were pretty experienced, but I don’t have the patience to wait that long for results, so I want to know how quickly these changes can occur. Another study had participants meditate for just four weeks and then looked at what went on in the ol’ noggin (Dodich et al.). It turns out it doesn’t take long for noticeable changes to happen. In those short weeks, participants showed increased gray matter (the good stuff for processing) and beneficial shifts in their neural pathway connections. Meditation rewired participants’ brains to work more efficiently than before compared to a control group. The central part of the brain targeted was the fronto-insular cortex, which plays a prominent role in attention and the mind’s executive functions. We love to hear it; in just a month, we can measurably change our brains by meditating. That’s crazy! Another group of researchers conducted a 7-week study on word recognition supporting that meditation quickly shows benefits. Researchers had participants take a lexical decision task (LDT) to test their response times (Lusnig et al., 2021). In the LDT, a string of letters is displayed, and the subject has to decide whether the letters create a word or not quickly (for example, “is ‘FANCY’ a word?” vs. “is ‘PHRUP’ a word?”). The LDT is a simple but proven way to measure cognitive attentional abilities. The results showed that participants were faster at the lexical decision task following meditation training. Faster response times start to sound like the laser focus we’re looking for. 

Cool looking EEG brain scan on a monk. Source: The Scientific American

Wow, so far, we’ve covered a lot! We’re on the right track to say that meditation can improve your attention in fantastic ways. Regular meditators have brains that work more efficiently to complete tasks, using their limited attention spans more effectively. Even from short periods of meditation, the brain already gains attentional speed and focus. But what about the hardcore meditators? Just for fun, I’m curious how far the improvements in our attention can go. Researchers have studied the attention of monks and others with thousands of hours of meditating. As you might expect, the changes are pretty impressive. Supporting the Stroop research from earlier, monks’ brains can direct high levels of attention and do so, requiring way less brain activation than everyday folks (Ricard et al.). They also found that while regular folks often miss the second of two numbers flashed milliseconds apart, long-term meditators could consistently attend to both numbers. It’s almost as if they see the world in slow motion. I’ll call that some serious, real-deal, laser focus.

Meditation is pretty neat. All of the research I’ve covered barely scratches the surface of all the benefits. Attention is vital because it dictates our experience, so it’s pretty important we take care of it. There is a proven way to improve these things if we want to be quicker, more efficient, and less distracted. What’s incredible about our minds is that they will change and adapt to whatever we throw at them. Maybe you’ve been struggling to focus on homework or work work (or anything else in life) and need a solution. If you’re like me, the romanticized image of peacefully sitting in the moment doesn’t cut it for motivation. It seems like a great idea to try meditation when you understand the changes in the brain. At the end of the day, will meditation give me or you laser focus? I guess it just depends on how you want to look at it. In a few thousand hours of practice, I’ll let you know.


Dodich, A., Zollo, M., Crespi, C., Cappa, S. F., Laureiro Martinez, D., Falini, A., & Canessa, N. (n.d.). Short‐term Sahaja Yoga meditation training modulates brain … Brain Behav. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/brb3.1159

Kozasa, E. H., Sato, J. R., Lacerda, S. S., Barreiros, M. A. M., Radvany, J., Russell, T. A., Sanches, L. G., Mello, L. E. A. M., & Amaro, E. (2011, July 7). Meditation training increases brain efficiency in an attention task. NeuroImage. Retrieved March 19, 2022, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811911007531

Lusnig, L., Radach, R., & Hofmann, M. J. (2021, May 9). Meditation affects word recognition of meditation novices. Psychological Research. SpringerLink. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00426-021-01522-5?utm_source=toc&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=toc_426_86_3&utm_content=etoc_springer_20220324

Ricard, M., Lutz, A., & Davidson, R. J. (2014, November). 38 Scientific American, November 2014 – JSTOR. Scientific American. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/26041821.pdf

Semple, R. J. (2010, June 5). Does mindfulness meditation enhance attention? A randomized controlled trial – mindfulness. SpringerLink. Retrieved March 19, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-010-0017-2 

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