Zanesco, A. P., King, B., MacLean, K., & Saron, C. D. (2013). Executive control and felt concentrative engagement following intensive meditation training. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 1, 0. Abstract.
Various forms of mental training have been shown to improve performance on cognitively demanding tasks. Individuals trained in meditative practices, for example, show generalized improvements on a variety of tasks assessing attentional performance. A central claim of this training, derived from contemplative traditions, posits that improved attentional performance is accompanied by subjective increases in the stability and clarity of concentrative engagement with one’s object of focus, as well as reductions in felt cognitive effort as expertise develops. However, despite frequent claims of mental stability following training, the phenomenological correlates of meditation-related attentional improvements have yet to be characterized.
In a longitudinal study, we assessed changes in executive control (performance on a 32-minute response inhibition task) and retrospective reports of task engagement (concentration, motivation, and effort) following one month of intensive, daily Vipassana meditation training. Compared to matched controls, training participants exhibited improvements in response inhibition accuracy and reductions in reaction time variability.
The training group also reported increases in concentration, but not effort or motivation, during task performance. Critically, increases in concentration predicted improvements in reaction time variability, suggesting a link between the experience of concentrative engagement and ongoing fluctuations in attentional stability. By incorporating experiential measures of task performance, the present study corroborates phenomenological accounts of stable, clear attentional engagement with the object of meditative focus following extensive training.
These results provide initial evidence that meditation-related changes in felt experience accompany improvements in adaptive, goal-directed behavior, and that such shifts may reflect accurate awareness of measurable changes in performance.