Professor of Psychology Richard J. Davidson is Director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience,
Director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging & Behavior, and
Director of the Center for Investigating Healthy Mind .

Here is an announcement from the U of Wisconsin about a study from his
group that appeared in *Journal of Neuroscience*:

A new study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that people
can train their minds to stay focused.

The study, led by UW-Madison scientist Antoine Lutz, involved subjects
interested in meditation in an effort to see whether voluntary mental
training can affect attention.

Results suggest that attention stability is not a fixed capacity, and
that it can be improved by directed mental training, such as meditation.

“Everyone is familiar with daydreaming,” says Lutz, who works jointly
with the Waisman Brain Imaging Lab and the new Center for Investigating
Healthy Minds.

“These momentary lapses into mind-wandering occur even when a person is
trying to stay focused on a chosen object.  The difficulty of focused
attention is evident both in everyday experiences and in the laboratory.”

Being able to sustain attention on a chosen object through time is a
critical component of attention regulation, explains the study’s senior
scientist Richard Davidson, director of the Center for Investigating
Healthy Minds and professor of psychology and psychiatry at UW-Madison.

“In untrained individuals, one gets easily distracted, requiring a
refocusing of attention,” says Davidson.

“Such ongoing fluctuations in attention stability are thought to reflect
competitive interactions between task-related and task-unrelated
processes, such as mind-wandering.  Our work holds that the capacity to
stabilize attention is best regarded as a skill that can be trained.”

Participants were presented with frequent standard and rare deviant
tones in both ears, and asked to pay attention only to tones presented
in one ear and to press a button each time they detected an intermittent
deviant tone.

Deviant tones were slightly higher in frequency than standard tones.

Lutz and colleagues investigated the moment-to-moment stability of
attention by quantifying the trial-to-trial variability of both reaction
time in response to attended deviant tones and consistency of brain
responses, as measured by electroencephalography ( EEG ).

“This measure of variability in both the behavioral and brain response
was particularly relevant,” explains Lutz.

“Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ( ADHD ) patients typically
show larger intra-individual variability in reaction time than controls
during performance of sustained attention tasks.  This variability is
thought to reflect a more pronounced distractibility and poor attention
for ADHD patients than controls. We hypothesized that meditation
training would reduce this form of variability.”

The new study showed that three months of rigorous training in Vipassana
meditation improved people’s ability to stabilize attention on target
tones, as indicated by both a measure of consistency of brain response
and reduced reaction time variability.

Furthermore, those individuals who showed the greatest increase in
neural response consistency showed the largest decrease in reaction time
variability.

“The finding that attention is a flexible skill opens up many
possibilities,” says Lutz.

“For example, attention training is worth examining for disorders like
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

This new work was reported online in the *Journal of Neuroscience*.

The work was funded by the National Center for Complementary and
Alternative Medicine of NIH, the Fetzer Institute and the Impact
Foundation, and by gifts from the John W. Kluge Foundation, Bryant
Wangard, Ralph Robinson and Keith and Arlene Bronstein.

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