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PROBLEM: The Internet is probably destroying our attention spans and working memories, but companies still want employees who are able to "focus." Also, even though they are pretty minimally predictive of professional success, academic admissions departments still seem to love standardized test scores. Improving memory and ability to focus takes years of cultivation and training, but getting the most out of your abilities as they stand is another valuable skill.
METHODOLOGY: Researchers at University of California at Santa Barbara had 48 undergraduate students take either a mindfulness class or a nutrition class. Classes met for 45 minutes four times per week for two weeks. They were taught by "professionals with extensive teaching experience in their respective fields." The mindfulness class "emphasized the physical posture and mental strategies of focused-attention meditation." As they describe that class more specifically:
It required participants to integrate mindfulness into their daily activities and to complete 10 minutes of daily meditation outside of class. During class, participants sat on cushions in a circle. Each class included 10 to 20 minutes of mindfulness exercises requiring focused attention to some aspect of sensory experience (e.g., sensations of breathing, tastes of a piece of fruit, or sounds of an audio recording). ... Classes focused on:
- Sitting in an upright posture with legs crossed and gaze lowered, distinguishing between naturally arising thoughts and elaborated thinking
- Minimizing the distracting quality of past and future concerns by reframing them as mental projections occurring in the present
- Using the breath as an anchor for attention during meditation
- Repeatedly counting up to 21 consecutive exhalations [Ed. note: presume inhalations occurred as well.]
- Allowing the mind to rest naturally rather than trying to suppress the occurrence of thoughts.
The students in both classes took the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations; the standardized tests considered for grad school application) before and after the two-weeks of class, as well as tests of memory and distractibility, where they counted their "task-unrelated thoughts" while doing things that required concentration.
RESULTS: Scores improved in the mindfulness-trained group, but not the nutrition-trained group. For one, their average GRE verbal score went from 460 to, two weeks later, 520. They also improved on tests of working memory and focus (had fewer task-unrelated thoughts).