The human mind has a natural tendency to wander and lose focus – a concept often referred to as the “monkey mind”. According to a 2016 study, we even appear to have a system built into our brains, which interrupts our cognitive flow when it’s faced with a sudden external disturbance.
This system makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. In prehistoric times, man needed to hunt for survival, and was also faced with the very real threat of the wild. When out hunting, a rustle in the grass nearby would have helped temporarily shift focus away from dinner, possibly to a life-saving extent!
In the present day, our distractions are more mundane. The doorbell rings, or our phone screen lights up, and we almost instantly lose our train of thought. Add to that the ongoing global pandemic, and there’s no dearth of things occupying our minds at any given time.
Meanwhile, the landscape of work and study have also changed dramatically in the last few months, and improving focus can do wonders for our daily routines. Staying focused on individual tasks can help us get through each one more efficiently, and make us more patient when dealing with the noise of the outside world.
This is where meditation can play a significant role.
Meditation and better focus
There’s a substantial amount of scientific research that helps showcase the positive impact meditation can have on our powers of focus.
A study at Washington University measured brain activity, and found that the mind of an experienced meditator wanders far less than that of someone who’s had little to no exposure to meditation.
Moreover, their brains also showed stronger coupling in the areas responsible for cognitive control, highlighting the effect meditation has on the physiological state of our brains, rather than simply on our state of mind.
Further experiments elsewhere also found that people with experience in meditation were far more efficient when executing tasks that pertained to attention spans.
So how exactly does meditation help improve focus?
How does it work?
To better understand how meditation helps improve focus, let’s take a closer look at the science. A study by Italian neuroscientist Giuseppe Pagnoni, compared the neurological activity of 12 people who had been meditating for at least 3 years, with 12 who had never meditated before – all the same age, and with similar levels of education.
The brain scans of the meditators showed significantly higher stability in the ventral posteromedial cortex (or vPMC) – the region of the brain linked to spontaneous thoughts and mind-wandering. A series of tests also found that the meditators were able to process rapid visual information far more accurately and efficiently.
Our brains are constantly running in the background – a bit like the processor of a computer – even in a so-called “state of rest”. The increased stability seen in the vPMC helped clarify the belief that regular meditation helps you exercise better control over the background activity of the brain, curbing its natural tendency to wander, and leading to better focus on any given task at hand.
How to get started
If you’re brand new to meditation, techniques such as Mindfulness and Breathwork are useful options to explore. They implement a variety of exercises that train your mind to focus on a singular action or thought. The very practice of Mindfulness is centred around the value of being “present”, and learning to disengage from any disturbances around you.
However, it’s important to remember that these practices are by no means an instant fix. Much like building stamina, or developing a certain set muscles, consistency and regularity are key. You will automatically find your focus improving, with gradual, sustained practice.
The science suggests that 140 minutes of meditation per week are more than enough to help you start feeling its effects within 8-10 weeks. Setting aside 20 minutes each day is a good way to develop a steady routine, as you work to hit your weekly target. As we always say – start small, but start.