Can Meditation Improve Performance?

When most people think of performance, they think of athletic performance. Performance though, need not be limited to how far or fast an athlete can run, or how well they function on the field of play. The idea of performance permeates almost all aspects of a person’s life, including how well we organize our days, parent our children, work, cook, clean, make love, and sleep. If you could significantly improve your performance in these and other aspects of your life, and feel more fulfilled, would you be willing to set aside one or more hours a week for mindfulness practices?

The most common form of meditation practiced today is breathing meditation. This involves sitting with an erect posture and focusing on the act of breathing. As intrusive thoughts and other distractions attempt to disrupt this task, the student accepts and then discards these interruptions and then returns to attending to the act of breathing. With practice, the mind becomes capable of staying focused on the task of breathing for extended periods of time.

“The capacity to sustain attention is critical for maintaining performance over a period of time.” This quote is from a neuroscience article (1) describing the results of a study examining the effects of meditation on brain function. Meditation was found to result in a significant increase in the ability to stay focused on the task at hand and be resistant to external distractions. In effect, neuroscience had finally advanced enough in its understanding of how the brain works to begin understanding the benefits of meditation on a physiological level. On the surface this may seem like research money wasted, but studying how meditation affects our brains may lead to improvements in how we treat attention disorders like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and schizophrenia.

The authors of another neuroscience research study (2) found that meditation conferred a greater ability to focus on a specific task and to prioritize competing tasks and responses. Those of us who attempt to multitask or find our days filled with competing demands can probably appreciate how valuable improvements in these abilities would be.

The authors also attempted to measure two distinct kinds of attention that meditation reportedly strengthens: concentration and receptive attention (2). Concentration involves focusing on a single task to the exclusion of all others. Over time, meditation practitioners who become adept at concentration learn receptive attention. Receptive attention is a state when all things are attended to at the same time, but without prejudice or judgment. Receptive attention is therefore a voluntary state of elevated alertness. What the authors found is that long-term meditation practitioners reacted less strongly when confronted by an unexpected event. The authors interpreted this as possible evidence of an elevated state of readiness that would be conducive to performing better when confronted by stress-filled or crisis situation.

Performance also depends on how good we are at scanning a document for important details or reading the flow of traffic around us for possible dangers. A phenomenon called “attentional-blink” deficit has been described as an inability to mentally detect a significant event within a stream of irrelevant events, if it closely follows another significant event (3). For example, the attentional-blink deficit might cause a driver to miss noticing someone in the crosswalk because they first noticed a driver running a red light. Meditation, it seems, reduces the blink response so that it becomes less likely that the second event will be missed. Meditation therefore results in a more efficient allocation of brain (attention) resources (3).

Based on the above research findings meditation improves concentration, resistance to distractions, prioritizing tasks and responses, how we react to crises, and brain resource allocation. All of these ablilities would have an impact on how well we perform in a variety of ways.

1. J Neurosci (2009), 29(42):13418-13427
2. Cognitive, Affective, & Behav Neurosci (2007), 7(2):109-119
3. PLoS Biol (2007), 5(6):1228-1235

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