Retreats are a usual component of mindfulness practice. There is robust evidence in favor of their beneficial effects on mental health and mood regulation. Yet, there is much less evidence on changes in key psychological mechanisms associated with retreats. During retreats, participants engage in intensive meditation practices focused on training attention, which is one of the main components of meditation. The aim of the current study was to assess changes, associated with retreats, in attentional bias towards emotional stimuli using eye-tracking methodologies.
Participants were volunteers who attended a 1-month Vipassana retreat (N = 20) and a control group of meditators (N = 25) equivalent in age, gender, and years of experience in meditation, who did not attend the retreat. Gaze patterns exhibited towards emotional stimuli (i.e., pairs of happy-neutral, sad-neutral, and happy-sad faces) were assessed on two occasions. In the retreat group (RG), the assessment was conducted one day before starting the retreat and one day after ending it, whereas in the control group (CG), the two assessments were separated by a 1-month period.
Regarding the maintenance of attention, results showed that the RG group had a significant reduction in the time spent looking at sad faces in the sad-neutral pairs of faces. In relation to deployment of attention, there was no significant change associated with the retreat or the passing of time.
These findings provide preliminary evidence that retreats may be effective at diminishing the salience of negative stimuli which, in turn, may be beneficial for emotional functioning.