How Meditation Can Help You Focus

Why can focusing on the task at hand sometimes be so hard? The truth is, our brains are attracted to novelty: Our minds are easily drawn to shiny objects, often called the shiny object or squirrel syndrome. Attraction to novelty is a feature of the brain because it has a survival benefit: Novelty can spell danger. When you're out walking in the woods you immediately notice any moving thing ahead of you because it could be a bear. Or when crossing the street, you instantly notice a car that's driving too fast and unlikely to stop. But when we need to focus, this can work against us. 

Shiny objects can come in the form of notifications of a new email, a social media update, or a text message, etc. A shiny object can also be our own irrelevant thoughts. We can shut off notifications to avoid the distracting pings, but when we need to accomplish a task and sustain our attention we need to inhibit those irrelevant thoughts. And when our minds are caught by those irrelevant thoughts, we have to detach from them and bring our attention back to the task. This is called top-down attention control.

Focused attention meditation (FAM) is a form of mindful meditation that increases top-down attention control by inhibiting our attention toward irrelevant stimuli. Under FAM, we maintain our attention on a specific object, such as the breath or a candle, while inhibiting mind-wandering. The amazing thing about FAM is that just one 15 minute session can have immediate results, and it has been suggested for workplaces and schools!

The brain region responsible for top-down attention control is the dorso-lateral prefontal cortex (DLFC). The DLPFC is located within the prefrontal cortex tasked with executive function. Top-down attention control is important for working memory capacity and the DLPC plays an important role. Working memory capacity enables you to keep relevant things in mind important for the task at hand and inhibit irrelevant things, such as remembering intermediate results while doing long division. This study, from Gunma University in Japan, aimed to find out whether focused attention meditation (FAM) would increase working memory capacity.


Thirty participants with no previous experience in focused attention meditation (FAM) were divided into two groups. The FAM group practiced focused attention meditation for 15 minutes: In FAM, the participants "focus[ed] on their breathing, count[ed] their breathing cycles, and maintain[ed] their concentration on their breath." The control group practiced a random thinking intervention, also for 15 minutes: They listened to "randomly recorded conversations or local radio advertisements via speakers [and] let various thoughts come to their minds."

Before starting the meditations and again after a five minute rest following the mediation, both groups did a reading span task, a well-validated measure of working memory, which asked them to read a sentence and remember a specific word. After reading several sentences, participants recalled the words they were asked to remember.

During the entire time for both groups, blood flow in the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) was measured using functional near-infrared spectroscopy to determine the top-down attention control effect.


The FAM group recalled 3.2 more words following the meditation whereas the control group recalled 0.53 fewer words and the difference was significant.

In addition, the FAM group showed increased activation in the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) bilaterally compared to the control group. The DLPC activation was also correlated with the change in total word score between pre- and post-test for all participants, meaning that the greater the improvement in working memory, the higher the DLPFC activation.

Focusing on one thing, such as your breath, for 15 minutes while inhibiting mind wandering can improve focus and working memory immediately.

Focus can be fleeting because we have a tendency to place undue importance to something that catches our attention in the moment, just because it's salient. Sometime, what catches out attention is important, but more often than not, it's just a distraction.

There's much advice about how to minimize distractions: turn off notifications, make sure you have everything at hand before you start because the environment always wins, rather than leaving your office door open, schedule open office hours, etc. 

The study shows that focusing on one thing, such as your breath, for 15 minutes while inhibiting mind wandering can improve focus and working memory immediately. This is due to increased inhibition of irrelevant thoughts, or top-down attention control, by the dorso-lateral perfrontal cortex.


Yamaya, N., Tsuchiya, K., Takizawa, I., Shimoda, K., Kitazawa, K., & Tozato, F. (2021). Effect of one‐session focused attention meditation on the working memory capacity of meditation novices: A functional near‐infrared spectroscopy study. Brain and Behavior11(8), e2288. doi: 10.1002/brb3.2288

Photo by Kenny Timmer on Unsplash

Related posts:

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Get ten neuroscience strategies to work with your clients' brains


Powered by WishList Member - Membership Software