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Meditation app boosts brain performance

New personalized, digital meditation app significantly improves attention and memory in as little as 6 weeks study finds.

Thanks to digital technology, many of us are multitasking between the virtual world and the present moment. This can leave us distracted and forgetful. Now, researchers at the University of California at San Francisco have leveraged the power of technology, creating a personalized, digital meditation app that significantly improves attention and memory in as little as 6 weeks.

The program, called MediTrain, is delivered via an app on digital devices. It uses a special “closed loop algorithm” that tracks how long users are able focus on their breath during a meditation session, then matches the next session to their ability level. It also provides real-time feedback, sort of like having a digital mediation coach, so aspiring meditators can feel more successful when learning to practice.

The study included 59 healthy young adults between 18-35 years of age with no meditation experience. They were randomly assigned to use either the MediTrain app, or to select from several other brain training apps.

MediTrain blends meditation-based practices with attention training exercises. In the study meditators were asked to listen to each session in a quiet place using headphones, and keep their eyes close to reduce distraction. First, they listened to detailed instructions about how to use the program, then were given on mindful breathing written and narrated by Jack Kornfield, a meditation teacher and co-founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

While meditating, participants were asked to observe the quality of their attention, and be aware of instances when their minds wandered, then shift their focus back to the breath. The first session was only 20 seconds long. After 20 seconds they reported whether or not their minds wandered by pressing a button on the iPad screen.

If they were able to continually maintain their focus the next session was 10% longer. If not, the following session was 20% shorter. In other words, the length of each session was determined by their success on the previous one. Participants were also given feedback on whether or not they completed the trial successfully. If they were able to maintain their focus the advanced to the next “level”.

People in the placebo group were allowed to choose from either a language training program (Duolingo), Tai Chi instruction, or puzzle games delivered on the iPad. Both groups were asked to practice a total of 20 to 30 minutes per day. They were given progress reports after each session and at the end of each day and week.

Both the meditation and placebo group members were given iPad Mini 2 devices with instructional videos and practice modules. They also had access to a website with a calendar, reminders and email support. The iPads transmitted data to the researchers so that they could track usage in real time, and provide participants support as needed.

The longer participants were able to focus on their breathing, the better they performed on attention and memory tests.

After 6 weeks the meditators increased the time they were able to focus from an average of 20 second to roughly 6 minutes. They were also better able to focus their attention and had improved memory compared to the placebo control group. The longer participants were able to focus on their breathing, the better they performed on attention and memory tests.

A subset of participants who also had their brain activity recorded using electroencephalography, or EEG, before and after the intervention, also demonstrated gains in brain regions linked to attentional control after 6 weeks of meditation These results are consistent with those found in adults after months of intensive meditation practice.

The study is notable because improvements were shown in healthy young adults who often deal with competing challenges to their attention thanks to persistent use of technology. It should be noted that follow up testing was conducted within 6 weeks of completing the program, so it is hard to know whether or not these gains will persist. It does, however, show that interactive, individually-tailored meditation instruction delivered via mobile technology may be useful in training the brain to focus and perform better amid life’s many distractions.


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