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    Effects of Techniques of Receptive Meditation and Relaxation on Attentional Processing

    Jesse R. RutschmanEarlham College1


    Previous research has indicated that receptive techniques of meditation improve onesability to sustain, distribute, and divide attention. However, relaxation has also been foundto improve attention. Here the effects of receptive techniques of meditation and relaxationare compared on two groups of participants performing a divided-attention task. It washypothesized that meditation would lead to a broader, more flexible, and more sustainedattentional style. Meditation was not found to enhance overall attentional capacity morethan relaxation, however it did lead to increased attentional flexibility and sustainment.

    lthough a powerful tool for reducing anxietyand inducing relaxation, meditation's most

    important function is to train ones attention(Goleman, 1988; Naranjo & Ornstein, 1971).Some investigators have had success in usingmeditative techniques as therapeutic methods ofattention control training for individuals withmental health problems or attention deficitdisorder (Eugene, 1999; Ferguson, 1976; Morris,1976). Nonetheless, the majority of research onmeditation has not been concerned with itsattentional effects, and the vast majority ofresearch has focused on transcendental meditation(TM) without distinguishing it from other formsof meditation. Clearly, the investigation andapplication of various techniques of self-regulation that can alter or enhance attention, haspowerful implications for education and mentalhealth.

    A Although there are a multitude of meditativepractices, researchers have generally been able toclassify them into two categories: concentrativemeditation or mindfulness meditation. As notedby Shapiro (1984), the practice of these differenttechniques utilizes different attention styles. Inconcentrative meditation practices, such as RajYoga, the practitioner utilizes what Shapiro refersto as zoom-lens attention, focusing on a specificobject (an event, image, or sound), thus trying torefine all of his or her attention to a single focalpoint. In mindfulness meditation practices such asZen meditation or Vipassana, the practitionerutilizes wide-angle-lens attention. Here oneextends their attention to the entire perceptivefield. Mindfulness practitioners try to attain a stateof receptivity, becoming aware of any and allemergent thoughts and sensations withoutbecoming actively involved in them.

    1 I would like to extend a special thanks to professors Kathy Milar, who provided me with help and guidance inconducting this research, and Michael Jackson for his helpful comments.



    Transcendental meditation integrates featuresof concentrative meditation (i.e. it utilizes a vocalmantra), however in terms of its essentialcognitive qualities it can be described as receptive(Roth, 2002). Shapiros different strategies ofattention have been attributed to differentprocessing centers in the brain (Pribram &McGuinness, 1975), as well as differentphysiological patterns reflecting habituation(Dunn, Hartigan, & Mikulas, 1999; Kasamatsu &Hirai, 1969).

    An enhanced attentional capacity has beenfound as a result of mindfulness meditation,concentrative meditation, TM, and relaxation,however the implications of all of these findingsvary (Travis, Tecce & Guttman, 2000; Valentine& Sweet, 1999; Yesavage & Rolf, 1984).Valentine and Sweet (1999) found that bothconcentrative and mindfulness practitioners hadimproved sustained attention on a continuousperformance task (Wilkins counting test) incontrast to control participants, howevermindfulness practitioners displayed lessdistraction to unexpected stimuli. According toShapiros (1984) model of attentional strategies,whereas practice of a zoom-lens strategy ofattention should intensify ones orientation to asingle object or continual task, practice of awide-angle-lens strategy of attention should leadto an enhanced readiness to differentiate between,and attend to varying objects or tasks.

    Psychological differentiation can be examinedthrough the lens of field dependence. Witkin(1977), in Bloom-Feshbach (1980), refers to fielddependence as an undifferentiated, global style ofperceiving things, whereas field independence isthe ability to experience items as a distinct fromtheir background. An enhancement in the abilityto differentiate between different sets of stimuliand to appropriate attention among different tasksdemanding different attentional styles can be seenas one corollary of field independence. Testingregular practitioners of TM and non-meditatingcontrols on several measures used to test fieldindependence (the Autokinetic Test, the Rod-and-

    Frame Test, and the Embedded-Figures Test),Pelletier (1974) found that, TM practitioners hada more increased perceptual acuity and better fieldindependence. Pelletiers findings have beensupported by other researchers (Rani & Rao,2000).

    Performance on divided-attention tasks hasbeen found to improve both as a result of TM andrelaxation (Travis, Tecce, & Guttman, 2000;Yesavage & Rolf, 1984). Travis, Tecce, andGuttman (2000) related performance on anauditory-response/letter-recall task of TMpractitioners to self-reported levels oftranscendence experienced during meditation.They found that participants who had reportedmore transcendent experiences showed quickerreaction times, reduced effects of distraction, andaccording to EEG and EOG measurements, aheightened physiological preparedness forresponse. Yesavage and Rolf (1984) implementeda similar divided-attention task, on a group ofelderly people and found that a reduction inanxiety through relaxation techniques enhancedtheir reaction times on both tasks.

    Thus, enhanced attentional capacity hasgenerally been found to be a result of meditationas well as relaxation. However, since certainforms of meditation have also been recognized aseffective relaxation techniques (Eppley, Abrams,& Shear, 1989; Zipkin, 1985), the question ofwhether enhanced attentional capacity can beattributable to special features of meditation orsimply to relaxation has not been empiricallyanswered. Physiological differences foundbetween concentrative meditation, mindfulnessmeditation, and relaxation may indicate possiblecorresponding attentional differences (Dunn,Hartigan, & Mikulas, 1999). A comparative studyon the attentional effects of meditation andrelaxation is needed.

    The purpose of the authors study was toinvestigate the effects of receptive forms ofmeditation, such as mindfulness and TM, andsimple relaxation on the process of attentionaldistribution in divided-attention tasks. As in the



    studies conducted by Yesavage and Rolf (1984)and Travis, Tecce, and Guttman (2000), thedivided-attention task used for this studyemployed a continual visual task (in this case avisual rotary pursuit) as a primary task, and anauditory stop task as a secondary task. It waspresumed that performance on a primary taskwould reflect centralized attention by requiringthe majority of ones attention continuously,whereas performance on a secondary task wouldreflect residual attention by demanding additionalattention sporadically. In the current study, it waspresumed that the visual rotary pursuit wouldengage centralized attention, since it involvedcontinuous focus and coordination and wouldelicit a habituation response, whereas the stoptask would engage residual attention, since it onlydemanded sporadic attention, and does not rely ona habituated response. Participants performingthese tasks were a sample of self-reportedmindfulness meditation practitioners and relaxingcontrols.

    Overall, in contrast to the relaxation controlgroup, the author hypothesized that aftertreatment, meditators would display greaterattentional capacity, greater attentional flexibility,and a more sustained attention. The hypothesescan be clearly stated as follows:1. Practitioners of meditation would exhibit a

    greater overall attentional capacity aftermeditation than would relaxed controls onboth primary and secondary tasks, whichwould be reflected by a higher compositescore for performances on both tasks.

    2. Practitioners of meditation would exhibitgreater attentional flexibility after meditationthan would relaxed controls, which would bereflected by a comparatively greaterimprovement in secondary task scores than inprimary task scores. Attentional flexibilitywas gauged in this study by ones reflectedability to respond with readiness to stimulithat have not been habituated, such as arandomly activated buzzer.

    3. Practitioners of meditation would display a

    more sustained attention across trials aftertreatment than would relaxing controls. Thiswould be characterized by a greater degree ofconsistency in scores between trials aftermeditation, suggesting a less rapid decline inattentional capacity, and less modal


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