It shouldn’t come as a surprise that meditation practice improves attention. After all meditation practice is mainly a training in attention. During meditation we work with an anchor. This anchor is the object of our attention and focus. You start by resting our attention on the anchor. You find that it is extremely difficult for us to maintain the focus on the anchor. You tend to wander or drift off and start thinking, imagining or visualizing things. This is the default nature of our mind. But you also recognize at times that you have wandered away from the anchor. Once you realize you bring yourself back to the anchor.
As you can see, this is nothing but attention training. It is strengthening of the attention muscle. One explicitly tries to cultivate better focus by focusing on something and repeatedly bringing yourself back to the focusing.
What is not obvious is that, same meditation training also improves something called conflict attention. Conflict attention is the scenario when there are more than one external stimuli vying for your attention. In simple words you have multiple things that demand your attention and you struggle to attend to any of them.
Now it is established that our mind can only focus one thing at a time. Our mind only has the resources to fully attend to only a single object. When we multitask, we are basically swiftly moving our attention from one object to another in such a way that it gives an illusion as if we are fully attending to more than one item. In reality, that is not the case. At a given moment we only can attend to a single object.
Going back to conflict attention. Let me try to give you an idea what it really is before we talk more as to why it is so important.
Bear with me as you go through the following slide of colors. You can say the color name.
You can now say the following words:
Green Blue Red Blue Green Red Blue
And for the following words, say the COLOR of the words and not read the word itself.
Blue Green Red Green Red Blue Green Red Green Blue
Well, how was it? You may have realized that it is difficult to ignore reading the word and there is rather a tendency to read the word first than to notice the color of the word first. This is because ever since we started reading fluently in our early lives, reading becomes and automatic function that gets triggered almost subconsciously. Looking up the color of some object is not as automatic a process as reading.
This leads to a conflict of attention in the example above. The tendency to read the letters competes for attention with the requirement to look up the color of the word and we end up with a conflict. The conflict would delay the color look up compared to the case when there is no conflict.
In our daily lives we are bombarded with a whole host of directives, demands and messages. Pretty much at every moment there are multiple things vying for your attention. In such an environment, the ability to discriminate and maintain your focus on a single object or matter becomes paramount. More you can maintain the focus, less distracted and less fragmented you will be. This will lead to more efficiency, less waste and possibly more productivity.
At this stage you may ask, ‘What about multitasking?’. The problem with multitasking is that, we tend to overvalue multitasking and undervalue the importance of focused attention. There are certain situation where one has to multitask and there being able to multitask is valuable. But more often the lack of the focused attention is the real issue. We will explore the issue of multitasking in a future post.