Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily
You’ve probably heard that meditation can make you calmer and happier, but did you know that it can also strengthen your focus and productivity? Or help your kids in the classroom? Professor Vishton shares the findings.
Meditation and Focus
Meditation not only helps us regulate emotions, but it also seems to boost our ability to selectively focus on particular information and to filter out miscellaneous information. When children are first learning to solve word problems in math class, selective focus is one of the biggest challenges.
Consider the following problem: “Mrs. Johnson has three wicker baskets, each containing seven tomatoes and four apples. How many tomatoes does Mrs. Johnson have?” There’s a lot of information in that word problem that’s irrelevant for determining the answer.
The big challenge for kids in this situation is to focus on the relevant information—the number of tomatoes and baskets—and ignore the irrelevant information—the number of apples, the fact that the baskets are made of wicker, or indeed that they’re baskets at all.
This is a challenge for kids, but, with more complex problems, it’s a challenge for adults as well. Any problem or task is like that. We need to focus on the key information and ignore irrelevant stuff.
When you drive your car, you need to ignore the billboards. When you talk with your friend at a restaurant, you have to filter out the sounds of other people around you. This comes up a lot.
The Stroop Task
Meditators are better at filtering out the irrelevant information and focusing on relevant information than non-meditators. Consider the following task that’s been used to test this: the Stroop task.
A series of color words are presented on a computer screen: red, blue, green, yellow, and orange. The letters of these words are printed in colors that do not match the word.
For example, the word red is printed in green letters; the word blue is printed in orange letters. Your task is to focus on the color of the letters, and announce those colors as quickly as possible.
This task sounds pretty easy, but overcoming the visual contradiction is hard. You can certainly see that the word is printed in a particular color—say, green—but it’s very difficult to filter out those same letters spelling out the word red. This is especially true when you’re trying to do all of this as quickly as you can. We automatically want to read that word—for example, red.
Meditators have less difficulty with this task than non-meditators. Something about that regular meditation and the way that it affects the brain improves our ability to selectively focus on one particular source of information whenever we decide to do so.
You don’t have to invest a lot of time to meditate regularly. Professor Vishton recommends starting at 10 minutes a day and gradually increasing to 20-minute sessions. This small investment of time can amount to large gains in your focus and productivity, thus saving you time in the long run.
This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.