Executive control and felt concentrative engagement | Mindfulness Exercises

Executive control and felt concentrative engagement


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Introduction

Various forms of mental training have been shown to improve performance on  cognitively demanding tasks. Individuals trained in meditative practices, for example, show generalized improvements on a variety of tasks assessing attentional performance. A central claim of this training, derived from contemplative traditions, posits that improved attentional performance is accompanied by subjective increases in the stability and clarity of concentrative engagement with one’s object of focus, as well as reductions in felt cognitive effort as expertise develops. However, despite frequent claims of mental stability following training, the phenomenological correlates of meditation-related attentional improvements have yet to be characterized. In a longitudinal study, we assessed changes in executive control (performance on a 32-min response inhibition task) and retrospective reports of task engagement (concentration, motivation, and effort) following one month of intensive, daily Vipassana meditation training. Compared to matched controls, training participants exhibited improvements in response inhibition accuracy and reductions in reaction time variability. The training group also reported increases in concentration, but not effort or motivation, during task performance Critically, increases in concentration predicted improvements in reaction time variability, suggesting a link between the experience of concentrative engagement and ongoing fluctuations in attentional stability. By incorporating experiential measures of task performance, the present study corroborates phenomenological accounts of stable, clear attentional engagement with the object of meditative focus following extensive training These results provide initial evidence that meditation-related changes in felt experience accompany improvements in adaptive, goal-directed behavior, and that such shifts may reflect accurate awareness of measurable changes in performance.

Goal-directed behaviors requiring sustained concentration are ubiquitous in daily life. As a sonsequence, the ability to voluntarily control attention is essential for promoting academic and professional success, maintaining mental and physical health and building adaptive interpersonal skills (Tangney et al., 2004). But there are limits on the overall capacity to direct and control attentional resources (Kaplan and Berman, 2010). Perhaps unsurprisingly, individuals commonly find sustaining their concentration during simple tasks to be stressful and effortful (Warm et al., 2008; Langner and Eickhoff, 2013), and momentary lapses can disrupt the stability of attention as the mind drifts on and off task over time (Weissman et al., 2006). Furthermore, individuals are often unaware that their attention has lapsed at all (Smallwood and Schooler, 2006).

There is increasing evidence suggesting that directed mental training, including meditation, may serve as one potential method to attenuate deficits in attentional stability (Slagter et al., 2011; Mrazek et al., 2013). Although these studies provide evidence that meditation training may impact neural and behavioral markers of attention and executive control (Hölzel et al., 2011), the extent to which observed improvements are accompanied by corresponding changes in phenomenological aspects of attention is unknown. In the present study, we aim to characterize training-related changes in phenomenal awareness that accompany improvements in sustained, goal-directed attention following intensive meditative practice. The fluctuating nature of attention has long been acknowledged by several Buddhist contemplative traditions (Wallace, 1999, 2006). These contemplative traditions have developed complex mental training techniques for cultivating stable attention, developing introspective and meta-cognitive abilities, and increasing one’s capacity for behavioral and emotional regulation (Lutz et al., 2008). Attention training through meditative practice can thus be conceived as a method for developing central attentional resources for the adaptive regulation of cognition and behavior. During meditative practice, practitioners may employ specific focused-attention techniques to selectively maintain attention on an object of concentration, typically the sensations of the breath and body, while monitoring the quality of ongoing awareness (e.g., clear or dull, focused or distracted). Other monitoring techniques involve awareness, introspection, and discriminative analysis of the contents of phenomenological experience (e.g., discerning bare sensations from associated evaluations and judgments). Together, these focused-attention and monitoring techniques comprise the basic methods for training in Vtpassana meditation (Goldstein, 1976; Goldstein and Kornfield, 2001), from which a number of contemplative-based therapies are derived (e.g., Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction; Grossman et al., 2004; Williams and Kabat-Zinn, 2011).

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