A recent study is suggesting that an experimental app may help teach people how to meditate thereby yield improvements in attention span and working memory.
A group of young adults used the app, called MediTrain, over the course of six weeks. The app is designed to tailor length of sessions through interactions with its user. In the study, the researchers were able to increase the amount of time spent in meditation.
The increase appears to have produced an increase in attention span and working memory, researchers report in Nature Human Behaviour.
“We found a new way of delivering an ancient practice in a very easily digestible way,” said the study’s lead author David Ziegler. “People on their own can find ways of approaching meditation, so they don’t have to go on a two-week meditation retreat.”
Ziegler is also the director of the Neuroscape research programme at the University of California, San Francisco. “The payback from learning to meditate is improvement in the ability to focus attention for longer and longer periods of time,” he said. He added that future experiments may look at the app’s impact on people with attention problems, such as those with ADHD and the elderly. “We were surprised and impressed with the size of the effect. We didn’t expect to see a big movement in healthy 20-year-olds.”
The trial included 59 volunteers aged 18 to 35. Participants were randomly assigned to use MediTrain or to a control group that used a different type of app. Those who ended up in the MediTrain group were first taught about meditation through a recorded set of instructions given by Jack Kornfield, a meditation teacher who co-founded Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California.
The participants were instructed them to focus on their breathing without allowing their minds to wander. “They start with a really low dose, about 15 to 20 seconds. If they can maintain focus for that amount of time, then the program makes the next trial more difficult by extending the time. If the person has a hard time, then the program makes it easier the next time by shortening the time,” he explained.
The adjustments are essentially controlled by the user’s responses. “They hear a chime that tells them to focus on their breaths. Then they are asked if they were able to maintain focus. This also teaches them to be introspective about their attention and where it is focused.”