Despite being an ancient tradition, meditation has only become a popular inquiry of research over the past few decades. This resurgence can partially be attributed to the popularization of Eastern meditative practices, such as mindfulness, into Western culture. Though the mechanisms of meditation are not yet scientifically well-understood, systems of attention and executive control may play an important role. The present study aimed to examine potential attentional mechanisms of attention-based meditations across studies.
This paper examines behavioral measures of attention across literature. Studies (K = 87) that assigned participants to or recruited participants who use techniques common in mindfulness practices (focused attention, open monitoring, or both) were meta-analyzed. Outcomes were coded according to attentional network (alerting, orienting, executive control) or facet of executive control (inhibition, shifting, updating).
Meta-analytic results suggest that generalized attention (g = 0.171, 95% CI [0.119, 0.224]), its alerting (g = 0.158, 95% CI [0.059, 0.256]) and executive control (g = 0.203, 95% CI [0.143, 0.264]) networks, and the inhibition (g = 0.159, 95% CI [0.064, 0.253]) and updating (g = 0.256 [0.176, 0.337]) facets of executive control are improved by meditation. There was significant heterogeneity in attention, the alerting and executive control networks, and the inhibition facet. Studies that taught both FA and OM techniques did not show attentional improvements over those that taught the techniques in isolation. Meditation led to greater improvements in accuracy-based tasks than reaction time tasks.
This meta-analysis suggests that attention is likely implicated in meditation, and meditation may improve some, but not all, attentional processes. Implications for understanding meditational mechanisms and moderator-related differences are discussed.