How different types of meditation affect cognitive performance

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In recent years, meditation has gained tremendous popularity. In large part, the advent of guided meditation apps has cleared the ambiguity of how meditation can work. Nowadays, applications like Headspace and Calm are on nearly every phone. But how does meditation actually affect your cognitive function? Do different types of meditation lead to different results? 

The different types of thinking

While there are numerous theories and psychological definitions behind thinking states, two concepts can describe desirable thought patterns in performance arenas: convergent and divergent thinking. 

Convergent thinking generally describes a focused thinking state in which solutions to a problem converge on one accurate answer. For example, on a multiple choice science test, typically only one answer can be regarded as the correct one. In other words, convergent thinking is highly accurate and quick. 

Divergent thinking, however, describes the thinking state in which solutions to a problem are more than one and multiple solutions can each be regarded as a correct solution. For example, divergent thinking occurs in a brainstorming episode, where new ideas can be generated and each idea can be a correct solution. In other words, divergent thinking is synonymous with creativity. [1-4]

What are some different types of meditation? 

Given the rich history of meditation and the many thousands of years that the practice has been in use, there are likely too many variations to count. With that said, many of these meditation practices can be grouped together into two classes: focused-attention (FA) and open-monitoring (OM) meditation. 

Focused-attention (FA) meditation is intuitively defined. The meditator focuses their attention on a given sound, feeling, or visual cue. For example, individuals meditating to a syllable or by looking at a candle flame are practicing a form of FA meditation. 

In open-monitoring (OM) meditation, on the other hand, the individual is not harnessing their attention or directing their experience in any meaningful way. Instead, they are more accurately a passive observer to the thoughts, feelings, or general experience while sitting. [3,4]

How do the different types of meditation affect thinking states? 

As you might expect, harnessing your attention (or not) can have different effects on your subsequent cognitive function. Several studies have gone forth and examined these effects. 

In nearly every study, regardless of meditation type, participants felt immediate improvements in mood after meditating. With that finding alone, researchers and readers can extrapolate the potential widespread performance benefits found with consistent mindfulness routines. 

FA and OM meditation routines both stimulated improved thinking states. Interestingly, the two types of meditation led to improvements in different types of thinking. 

Focused-attention routines emphasize the cognitive states associated with convergent thinking. In other words, researchers found evidence that FA meditation leads to more precise allocation of attentional resources and greater cognitive control. [1-4]

The opposite is true for open-monitoring routines. In studies, OM meditation reduces top-down control of thinking. In other words, thinking trends towards divergent thinking patterns. Researchers showed improvements in ideation following OM routines. Individuals practicing this type of meditation can expect to experience improved creativity and free thinking. [1-4]

Using these findings, you can tailor your meditation practice to the cognitive states most applicable to your cognitive task. If you are in need of a free-thinking brainstorming session, using an open-monitoring type of meditation will help you reach that level of creativity. Alternatively, if you are in need of fine-tuned, high-attention thinking, FA-style meditation is more appropriate. 


References

  1. Hommel et al. Meditation and Metacontrol. J Cogn Enhanc (2017) 1:115-121.
  2. Colzato, L. S., Sellaro, R., Samara, I., Baas, M., & Hommel, B. Meditation-induced states predict attentional control over time. Consciousness and Cognition, 37, 57–62
  3. Colzato, L. S., Szapora, A., Lippelt, D., & Hommel, B. (2017). Prior meditation practice modulates performance and strategy use in convergent- and divergent-thinking problems. Mindfulness, 8, 10–18.
  4. Colzato, L. S., Ozturk, A., & Hommel, B. (2012). Meditate to create: the impact of focused-attention and open-monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinking. Frontiers in Psychology, 3(116), 1–5.