Meditation is the Multi-Tasker’s Answer

Do you feel like the “before” person in a 5-Hour Energy commercial? A research report from the University of Washington suggests that meditation may offer some relief, by helping to improve memory, reduce stress, and aid in multi-tasking (full text here). This study is the latest in a series linking various meditation techniques to health benefits, such as improved cognitive fluidity, increased density in the part of the brain associated with self-regulation (including dieting), decreased risk for cardiovascular disease in at-risk teens, and increased creativity.

During the UW study, three groups of 12-15 human resource managers were monitored before and after an 8-week training period, during which they were taught different types of skills. Group A received 8 weeks of “mindfulness-based” meditation training from Darlene Cohen, the influential and recently deceased Zen teacher and practitioner:

“The training, largely organized around Focused Attention (FA) training, emphasized: (i) the ability to narrow or widen attentional focus voluntarily, and rest attention in the present moment or task; (ii) the flexibility to shift focus voluntarily from one thing to another; and (iii) the ability to cultivate awareness of the breath and the body as well as task objects.”

Group C received 8 weeks of relaxation training, based on the tensing and relaxing of major muscle groups. Group B, the “waitlist control group” was tested a first time, received no training at all for 8 weeks, was tested again, and then subsequently received 8 weeks of meditation training and was tested a third time.

Before and after the 8-week trial periods, participants were given stressful multi-tasking tests (despite the fact that other studies seem to indicate that although our brains can’t actually multi-task, we do it because it makes us feel good), where they were asked to schedule a meeting, find an open conference room, write two memos, and eat a small assortment of snacks within 20 minutes. Their performances were monitored and coded, and after each test participants were surveyed about their overall stress and anxiety. The results were significant. Compared to the relaxation and control groups, the meditation group:

• Engaged in less “task-switching,” or jumping between tasks. 

• Spent more time with each activity. 

• Reported less stress. 

The authors of the study posit that meditation training may “strengthen one’s ability to notice interruptions without necessarily relinquishing one’s current task,” and that this skill might give people the choice to stay with tasks longer.

These are encouraging results, and though the report doesn’t have the weight of a large-scale study in a peer-reviewed journal, it is a persuasive indicator of the benefits of meditation for multi-taskers. This study should also give us reason to pause, especially when we read its conclusion:

“The present study builds on a growing body of scientific literature suggesting that human attention is a trainable resource and that certain forms of meditation constitute a viable form of such training. The evidence presented here suggests that meditation training may effect positive changes in the multitasking practices of computer-based knowledge workers, and thus offers encouragement to those who would design workplace or technology interventions to take advantage of this possibility.”

The authors’ language here is beginning to slip into business speak, with promises of increased workplace productivity through cognitive management. The thin line between self-improvement and self-training is one that has been increasingly blurred in recent years, as neuroscience continues to focus on optimizing a new kind of work force. As Neuron reported in April, over 40% of pop-neuroscience is geared towards “brain optimization,” or the improvement of brain function.

The popularity of brain enhancement goes two ways. We as individuals want better brains, presumably so that we can work more efficiently and lead happier lives. On the other hand, capitalist institutions like businesses and corporations are constantly looking for ways to increase productivity and workflow, and “brain optimization” is a great way to get more work for the same pay. In study after study, meditation is getting drawn into both of these goals. Perhaps the lotus position is coming to a training video near you.

In related news, I have a business idea for meditation cushions made out of recycled power ties. Any investors?