The Scientific Case for
“Focused-Attention Meditation”

Not all forms of meditation are created equal.

There are innumerable forms of meditation. Only some come with long traditions, and even fewer have been carefully scientifically studied.

Of the ones that have been studied, we’ll take a look at the differences between these two: Focused-Attention and Mindfulness (aka Open Monitoring).

Focused-Attention Meditation (FAM) is exactly what it sounds like, participants are asked to bring their full attention to a particular stimuli, sometimes an external image, sometimes an internal sensation. If they’re mind wanders, they are instructed to bring their attention back to the chosen focal point.

Mindfulness, also referred to as Open Monitoring Meditation (OMM) involves the intentional and non-judgmental awareness of whatever arises in the moment.

Often these two forms of meditation are combined into mindful breathing, where open monitoring occurs but with breathing serving as an attentional anchor point.

These two forms of meditation have long traditions in both Tantric (which is the origins of Yoga), Hindu, and Buddhist traditions, and have become the focus of a growing body of scientific research.

A good starting point would be: are these two forms of meditation really different?

The answer is a resounding yes!

How are they different? They are neurologically and functionally separate.

That is: different forms of meditation affect brain activity in different ways, and they improve performance in different ways and on different tasks.

The Brain

Let’s start with the brain first, and later discuss improved performance.

To look at the long term neurophysiological (brain state) effects of different forms of meditation practice, scientists employed the help of buddhist monks.

These monks have been practicing for years, with special attention given to distinct techniques.

Based on the neuroimaging results, the researchers reported that monks showed different levels of neural activity during FAM then OMM in several areas of the brain.

Quick side note: very interestingly, in this study differences between experienced and non-experienced meditators were most pronounced during FAM, implying that practicing this technique might have a greater potential for changing brain function.

In particular, let’s focus on one distinct area of the monk’s brains that were activated during FAM but not OMM, the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC).

The ACC is activated when someone is overcoming impasses, detecting interference and errors, and self-regulating.

All three of these abilities may be involved when the ACC is activated during Focused-Attention Meditation.

Perhaps noticing when attention has moved off of the main stimuli, and then returning awareness to that stimuli, involves self-regulation, detecting interference with focus, noticing an error in intended functioning, and overcoming the impasse of the distraction.

In one experiment, experienced meditators doing Focused-Attention Meditation while their brain was being scanned by an fMRI clicked a button every time their mind wandered.

By looking at what areas were most active just before the meditators pressed the button, researchers could see what part of the brain was most involved in the action of returning attention to the focus point.

Sure enough, it was the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC).

When the ACC detects an error, it relays information to executive control neworks, which are also involved in self-regulation, impulse control, planning, and many other cognitive functions that evolved very recently in the history of the brain.

A similar study using experienced meditators again found more activity in the ACC during a concentration based meditation (akin to FAM).

So this area of the brain seems to be particularly engaged by FAM (compared to OMM). It also seems to be more engaged in the brains of meditators who have spent more time practicing.

So what does this all actually mean practically?

Cognitive Performance

Does cognitive performance improve after FAM?

YES!

It turns out that FAM improves creativity in different ways from OMM.

While open awareness forms of meditation improve divergent thinking (coming up with many possible solutions to an open ended problem), focused-attention improves convergent thinking (finding the right answer to a well-defined problem).

This makes sense given what we know about Focused-Attention Meditation and the Anterior Cingulate Cortex.

Convergent thinking requires detecting and avoiding interference or errors, and overcoming impasses, and keeping your attention on track.

So not only does FAM change the brain, it also influences behavior, and increases certain skills.

But problem solving and focus can often be stressful, whereas meditation is supposed to be relaxing. So another question arises:

Is focused-attention meditation relaxing or stressful?

Physiology

Researchers examined this question by looking at the heart rate variability (HRV) of people doing Focused-Attention Meditation.

HRV is a good measure of the autonomic nervous systems balance. People with serious stress related condition, anxious thoughts, depression, insomnia, and many other conditions, often have lower HRV.

Ideally, when you breathe in your heart rate increases, sending oxygen throughout your body, and when you breathe out, your heart does not need to work as hard, so your heart rate decreases.

People with higher HRV tend to be better able to deal with normal life stressors.

It turns out, HRV was significantly increased by Focused-Attention Meditation. Meaning, concentration meditation not only improves cognitive functioning, it also relaxes the nervous system in a way that has been shown to be good for psychological and physiological well-being.

Review

So what did we learn?

Well, we know that there are differences between different kinds of meditation practices.

These differences can be seen in brain scans of meditators, as well as in behavior.

Focused-Attention Meditation seem to impact one area of the brain more than open monitoring. That area is the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, which is involved in self-regulation and error detection.

Focused-Attention Meditation increases the ability to find the correct answer to well-defined problems.

Skilled meditators showed very different brain activity while engaged in Focused-Attention meditation, compared with novices. These differences were not detectable when the two groups were engaged in open-monitoring.

So Focused-Attention Meditation changes the brain, these changes are increased with practice, and these changes lead to an increased ability to problem solve.

Finally, Concentration Meditation has been shown to alter physiology by increasing Heart Rate Variability, a known measure of autonomic health and resilience.

So, if you’re interested in being more resilient, better able to self-regulate and stay on task, more skilled at detecting errors, and more capable when it comes to problem solving, give Focused-Attention Meditation a try.

Sources

  • Focused-attention meditation involves different parts of the brain than mindfulness or loving kindness

Lee, T. M., Leung, M. K., Hou, W. K., Tang, J. C., Yin, J., So, K. F., … & Chan, C. C. (2012). Distinct neural activity associated with focused-attention meditation and loving-kindness meditation. PLoS One, 7(8), e40054.

  • Mindfulness increased divergent thinking, while focused-attention meditation increased convergent thinking. Convergent thinking is solution finding to a single solution, well-defined problem, whereas divergent thinking involves coming up with many possible answers.

Colzato, L. S., Ozturk, A., and Hommel, B. (2012). Meditate to create: the impact of focused-attention and open-monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinking. Front. Psychol. 3:116. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00116

  • Executive attention improved in both focused-attention and open monitoring meditation practices.

Ainsworth, B., Eddershaw, R., Meron, D., Baldwin, D. S., & Garner, M. (2013). The effect of focused attention and open monitoring meditation on attention network function in healthy volunteers. Psychiatry research, 210(3), 1226–1231.

  • Buddhist Monks exhibit more activity in the ACC during focused-attention meditation compared to open monitoring meditation.

Manna, A., Raffone, A., Perrucci, M. G., Nardo, D., Ferretti, A., Tartaro, A.,et al. (2010). Neural correlates of focused attention and cognitive monitoring in meditation. Brain Res. Bull. 82, 46–56. doi: 10.1016/j.brainresbull.2010.03.001

  • As the ACC is involved in processes such as self-regulation, detecting interference and errors, and overcoming impasses.

Botvinick, M., Nystrom, L. E., Fissell, K., Carter, C. S., and Cohen, J. D. (1999). Conflict monitoring versus selection-for-action in anterior cingulate cortex. Nature 402, 179–181. doi: 10.1038/46035

  • Experienced meditators engaged in FAM inside an fMRI scanner and pushed a button whenever they started to mind-wander. The moment of awareness of mind-wandering was associated with increased activity in the dorsal ACC.

Hasenkamp, W., Wilson-Mendenhall, C. D., Duncan, E., and Barsalou, L. W. (2012). Mind wandering and attention during focused meditation: a fine-grained temporal analysis of fluctuating cognitive states. Neuroimage 59, 750–760. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.07.008

  • As the mind starts to wander during meditation, the ACC might detect this “error” and feed it back to executive control networks so that attention can be refocused.

Botvinick, M., Nystrom, L. E., Fissell, K., Carter, C. S., and Cohen, J. D. (1999). Conflict monitoring versus selection-for-action in anterior cingulate cortex. Nature 402, 179–181. doi: 10.1038/46035

Carter, C. S., and van Veen, V. (2007). Anterior cingulate cortex and conflict detection: an update of theory and data. Cogn. Affect. Behav. Neurosci. 7, 367–379. doi: 10.3758/CABN.7.4.367

  • Researchers compared experienced and novice meditators during a concentrative meditation (akin to FAM) and found that the experienced meditators showed greater activity in the rostral ACC during meditation than the novices, even though the two groups did not differ on an arithmetic control task.

Hölzel, B. K., Ott, U., Hempel, H., Hackl, A., Wolf, K., Stark, R.,et al. (2007). Differential engagement of anterior cingulate and adjacent medial frontal cortex in adept meditators and non-meditators. Neurosci. Lett. 421, 16–21. doi: 10.1016/j.neulet.2007.04.074

  • Additionally, there is research showing more activity in the ACC during FAM compared to a control task. The activity in the ACC was more consistent and sustained for experienced meditators.

Baron Short, E., Kose, S., Mu, Q., Borckardt, J., Newberg, A., George, M. S.,et al. (2007). Regional brain activation during meditation shows time and practice effects: an exploratory fMRI study. Evid. Based Complement. Alternat. Med. 7, 121–127. doi: 10.1093/ecam/nem163

  • “This all suggests that the effects of meditation on the ACC and conflict monitoring do not seem to be limited to temporary state effects but carry over into daily life as a more stable “trait.” Future large scale longitudinal studies should be conducted to address this issue and to disentangle short-term and long-term effects on conflict monitoring.”

Ainsworth, B., Eddershaw, R., Meron, D., Baldwin, D. S., & Garner, M. (2013). The effect of focused attention and open monitoring meditation on attention network function in healthy volunteers. Psychiatry research, 210(3), 1226–1231.

  • FA results in increased brain activity and connectivity in the ACC relative to OM

Lazar, S. W., Bush, G., Gollub, R. L., Fricchione, G. L., Khalsa, G., and Benson, H. (2000). Functional brain mapping of the relaxation response and meditation. Neuroreport 11, 1581–1585. doi: 10.1097/00001756–200005150–00041

Manna, A., Raffone, A., Perrucci, M. G., Nardo, D., Ferretti, A., Tartaro, A., et al. (2010). Neural correlates of focused attention and cognitive monitoring in meditation. Brain Res. Bull. 82, 46–56. doi: 10.1016/j.brainresbull.2010.03.001

Botvinick, M. M., Cohen, J. D., and Carter, C. S. (2004). Conflict monitoring and anterior cingulate cortex: an update. Trends Cogn. Sci. (Regul. Ed). 8, 539–546. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2004.10.003

  • FA is also associated with increased right dorsolateral PFC activity and connectivity to the right insula, which has not been seen in OM (D’Esposito, 2007).

Kozasa, E. H., Sato, J. R., Lacerda, S. S., Barreiros, M. A., Radvany, J., Russel, T. A.,et al. (2012). Meditation training increases brain efficiency in an attention task. Neuroimage 59, 745–749. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.06.088

  • Concentration meditation increases Heart Rate Variability

Phongsuphap, S., Pongsupap, Y., Chandanamattha, P., & Lursinsap, C. (2008). Changes in heart rate variability during concentration meditation. International journal of cardiology, 130(3), 481–484.

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