Studies Trickle In on How Mindfulness Meditation *Actually* Improves Multitasking

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Meditation training makes multitasking more peaceful, but not necessarily more productive.

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In workplace of the future, laptop meditates you! (Source: Flickr / Johan Brook )

People are addicted to the internet! -- and now, thanks to the New York Times, we know that our trusty Silicon Valley executives are thinking hard about it. And not only that, they're going to conferences on it:

At the Wisdom 2.0 conference in February, founders from Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Zynga and PayPal, and executives and managers from companies like Google, Microsoft, Cisco and others listened to or participated in conversations with experts in yoga and mindfulness. 

This story is long on quotes but short on many details. It mistakes structural problems for issues of individual responsibility, as Alexis Madrigal detailed, and, much to James Fallows's chagrin, it wrongs the intelligence of frogs. It also -- perhaps less a failing -- fails to touch on how all this mindfulness is supposed to trump dopamine addiction.

Because there is beginning to be research on it. In a study presented last spring to the Canadian Information Processing Society, researchers examined one of the exact techniques the article discusses: how "mindfulness meditation" benefits multitasking skills. 

The study was small. It took three groups of 12-15 HR professionals, all women from the Bay Area or Seattle. All three groups took a stressful test that mirrored a "knowledge worker's" office before the experiment, and then their paths departed: one took an eight week mindfulness mediation course, then took the test again; the second took an eight week-long body relaxation course, then re-tested; and a third waited eight weeks, took the test, took the eight week long meditation course, then took the test again.

What did it find? In this tiny sample, meditation actually seemed to help a lot: Groups trained in it stayed on task longer and better remembered what they were working on. They reported fewer negative emotions after their test (take negative emotions as you will). The researchers conjecture that meditation helped the women notice distractions without ceding to them, that it let them stick to a task longer and not give in.

Body relaxation training, meanwhile, didn't seem to help its training group. And by one measure -- the time to complete the test -- the training helped no one, really, at all. All the groups got better at the test over the course of eight or 16 weeks, meaning simple practice helped more than meditation.

So meditation, in early testing, seems to have some effects. In the short term, it helps people feel better about their lives but doesn't seem to improve their efficiency. That's good news: It means these activities arc toward an outcome which isn't just more production. And while we don't know much about the long term, (if I can slide into non-scientific usage), happier people are their own end goal. More relaxed people -- not workers -- are able to consider the grander plans of existence.

But speaking of the grander plans of existence... I think the true news item, with its wide-reaching effects for Western civilization, may have been buried in that story. Halfway through, we learn of Padmasree Warrior, a C-level executive at Cisco. Richtel writes:

She meditates every night and takes Saturday to paint and write poetry, turning off her phone or leaving it in the other room.

A businesswoman at an American company, writing poetry? The international elite, communing with Euterpe and Erato? At last! This is real history. Someone call the NEA!

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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