Stress and aging can take their toll on brain function over time. Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can help boost attention and keep the brain sharp as we age, but we’ve yet to understand why that happens. New research suggests that paying attention to the breath might be the answer.
In the study, 21 healthy adults received 4 hours of mindful breath awareness training (M-BAT), then were asked to practice breath awareness for 10-min per day, at least 5 days per week for 3 weeks. Mindful breath awareness involves paying attention to the breath and observing thoughts, feelings, sensations and other experiences that arise without becoming fixated on them. No breath control or manipulation is required.
Meditators in this study were asked to either pay attention to movement of the diaphragm and abdomen while breathing, or to focus on the airflow around their nostrils. They were provided with an audio CD with a guided meditation and a booklet with written instructions, and asked to log their meditation practice in a diary. After 3 weeks, their performance on a mental exercise was compared to results from 15 adults with no prior meditation experience.
Previous research suggests that mindfulness meditation can increase awareness of our thoughts, or meta-cognitive awareness, as well as regulate emotion, enhance attention and reduce stress. These changes can also be detected in the brain.
Scientists often use a “Go/No Go” task to test some of these skills. The task requires participants to respond (GO) by pressing a button when they see one stimulus – say a green dot – and not respond (NO GO) when another object – like a red dot - appears. Accurate and speedy responses suggest greater attention, inhibition, and mental efficiency. Impulsivity can also be examined by looking at brain waves activity when a person performs the Go/No Go task to see how quickly the brain responds when a mistake is made.
When comparing their performance before and after training researchers found meditators to be less impulsive and more accurate on the Go/No Go task than adults with no meditation experience. Meditators also showed an increase in brain activity related to monitoring conflict and inhibiting their responses. The more they meditated, the better the results.
The study’s authors are quick to note that although mindful breath awareness may improve attention and help curb impulsive behavior, this does not mean that breath awareness interventions are therapeutically effective for reducing impulsivity or increasing attention. It does suggest that breath awareness may be one of many avenues through which meditation may train the brain to work more efficiently.