Meditation, Mindfulness, and Attention: a Meta-analysis

Abstract

Objectives

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.

Methods

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).

Results

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.

Conclusions

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.

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Data Availability

All online resources are available at the Open Science Framework (https://osf.io/aj8cv/?view_only=941f7c5c9fd4471bb0f59c56b27c1f26).

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank Dr. Julia Spaniol and Dr. Lixia Yang for their invaluable feedback and input. They would also like to acknowledge the reviewers for their comments, which were integral to the development of this manuscript.

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DS: designed and co-executed the study, completed the data analyses, wrote the first draft of the paper, and co-wrote the final version of the manuscript. KES: co-executed the study and co-wrote the manuscript. All authors approved the final version of the manuscript for submission.

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Sumantry, D., Stewart, K.E. Meditation, Mindfulness, and Attention: a Meta-analysis. Mindfulness (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-021-01593-w

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Keywords

  • Meditation
  • Meta-analysis
  • Attention
  • Executive control