There is an interesting article on meditation (see citation) which puts control of attention at the beginning of mindfulness meditation training and practice. This type of meditation is used traditionally by Buddhists but now also by many medical support programs (for depression, anxiety and the like) and self-help groups. The training varies but always seems to put an early emphasis on controlling attention.
The article gives three respected definitions for mindfulness:
“the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” – “characterized by dispassionate, non-evaluative, and sustained moment-to-moment awareness of perceptible mental states and processes. This includes continuous, immediate awareness of physical sensations, perceptions, affective states, thoughts, and imagery” – “a receptive attention to and awareness of present events and experience”
Meditation seems to increase control over three key areas: attention, cognition and emotion. But control of attention seems to be mastered first and used to gain control of the other two. Once those skills are in place the training goal is a mental stance of non-judging awareness. This is intended to produce behavior that is aware, flexible and autonomous as well as general well-being.
But how is attention changed in meditation training? The model is that three attentional networks cooperate; they have the functions of alerting, orienting and executing control. The right frontal and right parietal cortex and the thalamus are involved in alerting functions. The superior parietal cortex, temporal parietal junction, frontal eye fields, and superior colliculus are involved in orienting. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), lateral ventral cortex, prefrontal cortex, and basal ganglia contribute to executive control processes. However, the executive function may be split to divide out a salience network that detects relevant events for cognition, homeostasis and emotion (dorsal ACC, ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, anterior insula).
Sustained attention can be studied using Attentional Blink experiments. Presumably efficiency allows sustainablity:
“The attentional blink task requires participants to attend to a rapidly changing stream of stimuli (e.g., letters) and to report the identity of two embedded target stimuli (e.g., digits) after each trial. Performance to the second target in the stream typically suffers if it appears within 500 ms after the first target, the so-called attentional blink effect. This performance detriment was significantly reduced after the meditators had completed their meditation retreat. In parallel, the amplitude of the P3b event-related potential (ERP) elicited by the first target stimulus, was decreased in meditators. The participants with the greatest decrease of the P3b amplitude also showed the largest decrease in attentional blink size. Because the P3b component is considered to index the allocation of attentional resources, these results suggest that the meditation training improved the meditators ability to sustain attentional engagement in a more balanced and continuous fashion. This was expressed as enhanced allocation of neural resources, which facilitated the detection of the second target. An additional analysis of the phase of oscillatory theta activity following successfully detected second targets showed a reduced variability across trials, a signature of more consistent deployment of attention in meditators. Taken together these findings indicate improved efficiency in engaging and disengaging from relevant target stimuli, i.e., flexibility of allocating attentional resources. ”
Studying how attention is monitored and restored after lapses often uses the Stroop Word-Color Task:
“The task requires participants to rapidly name or indicate the color of the font a word is presented in. The highly automatized function of reading leads to performance decrements (slower responses and/or higher error rates) in the incongruent condition, i.e., when the meaning of a color word conflicts with its font color (e.g., “GREEN” presented in red). High proficiency in this task is thus thought to indicate
good attentional control and relatively low automaticity or impulsivity of one’s responses. Employing cross-sectional comparisons, several studies reported significantly better performance for meditators than non-meditators on this task and found that task performance was also related to lifetime
meditation experience and levels of self-reported mindfulness …The results showed that meditation practice influenced the neuronal responses to the Stroop stimuli in two important ways. Firstly, it led to a relative increase of lateral posterior N2 amplitudes (160–240 ms) over both hemispheres, irrespective of stimulus congruency. These changes in the meditation group were primarily driven by increased activity in the left medial and lateral occipitotemporal areas for congruent stimuli, which was contrasted by decreased activity in similar brain areas in the control group. The second difference between meditators and controls was observed in the P3 component, peaking between 310 and 380 ms, primarily for incongruent stimuli. While the participants in the control group exhibited an increase of the P3 amplitude for incongruent stimuli, a decrease was observed for the meditation group, attributed to reduced activity in lateral occipitotemporal and inferior temporal regions of the right-hemisphere …better Stroop performance in meditators, commonly attributed to de-automatization, may—at least partially—be due to less emotional reactivity and may thus reflect improved emotion regulation strategies rather than attentional control processes. This perspective highlights the close link between attention regulation and emotion regulation skills”
“Longitudinal studies indicate that meditation practice results in significant changes to earlier stimulus processing in terms of enhanced/more consistent, dynamic, and flexible attentional functions. Improvements in attentional selection and control appear to be primarily mediated by more flexible attentional resource allocation that modulates early stimulus processing, possibly in a modality independent fashion. Rather than enhancing response inhibition processes per se, the study by Moore revealed meditation-related improvements to earlier stages of stimulus processing in terms of more focused attentional resources (indexed by the enhanced N2) and more efficient perceptual discrimination and conflict resolution processes (indexed by the reduced P3). When considering these two findings together, an interesting interpretation emerges: the more successful attentional amplification of the color word stimuli may have influenced the subsequent object recognition processes in positive ways, so that less attentional resources needed to be invested. ”
There appears to be an indication that the improved control of attention is important in meditation training and is the basis on which other skills are mastered.
Malinowski P. (2013). Neural mechanisms of attentional control in mindfulness meditation Frontiers in Neuroscience, 7 (8) : 10.3389/fnins.2013.00008