Meditation practice has seen explosive growth in the past decade, spurred on not only by further research of the potential benefits, but also by the adoption of the practice by Silicon Valley elites and top tech companies (Apple, Google), as well as a profusion of guided-meditation apps.
The positive research is accumulating, with even the most skeptical studies essentially stating it’s worth a shot. A 2015 meta-analysis on the current state of meditation research concludes: “Despite a heterogeneous and mixed-quality body of evidence, given the risk-benefit ratio and current evidence, it is a reasonable clinical decision to suggest or recommend a meditation practice like mindfulness based stress reduction as an adjunctive treatment for selected clinical conditions such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, PTSD, burnout or cancer, and to promote general well-being.”
As one guided-meditation app, Headspace, features on it’s website (along with cited sources), mindfulness meditation has been shown to alleviate stress, enhance awareness, decrease anxiety, boost compassion, but perhaps most importantly, structurally change the part of the brain that monitors focus and self-control.
In the era of the smartphone, the ability to focus is more depleted than ever before. Anecdotally, it’s not difficult to believe that people are more distracted today than in the past. The technology in our pockets has stolen the many idle moments we used to have throughout our day — waiting for an elevator, using the restroom, or even walking from the elevator to the restroom. At any hint of boredom, we instinctually reach for our smartphones. Most people don’t even watch TV any more without using a “second screen.”
Is this continual distraction having a negative effect on our ability to focus? Recent studies have shown that college students are more distracted than ever, American drivers are more distracted, and our attention spans may be getting shorter. A 2010 study found that people’s minds’ wander nearly 47% of their waking hours.
While we may feel more productive with the unlimited potential for entertainment in our pocket, research shows that a distracted, wandering mind causes unhappiness.
Luckily, mindful meditation may provide a treatment for our shrinking focus. Research has specifically linked meditation to a reduction of activity in the default mode network, a brain network implicated in self-related thinking and mind wandering. The studies show people who meditate outperform non-meditators on focus tasks, and stay on task longer than people who don’t meditate.
The explosion of stimulation and available information in recent decades is sure to have some impact on our millennia-old brains. For most of human history, people were relatively unstimulated — imagine all the time you’d have without smartphones, computers, internet, TV, radio, vehicles, etc. We’ve traded in the slow pace with ample down time for concentrated thought for an addiction to checking our social media platforms and favorite websites for the 10th time today. This could be causing a ripple effect through our attention span and even happiness. Luckily, as more research accumulates, it appears we may have a way to gain back some of that focus — meditation.