Meditation might act as a «volume knob» for selective attention, leading to better control over pain and negative emotions. A recently published Brown University study on mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) has shown that attentional training holds promise for improving everyday functions.

What is MBSR?

Originally developed by a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) has grown to become part of many healthcare plans in the last 20 years.

It consists of an 8-week program that trains patients to focus a «spotlight of attention» on different parts of their body, and eventually to develop the same awareness of their mental states.

How MBSR affects alpha rhythms

There is strong evidence that the MBSR techniques of increasing attentional control have measurable effects on alpha wave behavior in patients’ brains. Alpha rhythms are a key part of the sensory system: they’re related to how the brain processes and filters irrelevant sensory inputs.

Filtering inputs is a crucial part of higher order cognitive process such as selective attention and working memory. Both of these processes are based on a person’s attention to focus on relevant information while ignoring irrelevant information. Without proper filtering, your ability to carry out even the most basic cognitive operations can be crippled.

Imagine the simple task of backing your car out of the driveway. In order to reach the street safely, you must hold your destination in mind while steering the car and ignoring distractions from every modality: the news on the radio, children playing at the end of the block, an itch on your foot, the glare of the sun in your eyes. Most of us do this filtering subconsciously—but if you let such irrelevant stimuli distract you, even such a daily task can become a difficult ordeal.

That’s why MBSR’s value extends even beyond its ability to improve attention during regular tasks: one of its primary clinical uses is in the treatment of patients suffering from chronic pain, who struggle with ignoring irrelevant pain stimuli on a daily basis. In fact, MBSR has been shown to have positive emotional benefits in those suffering from chronic pain and depression.

Brain scan evidence of MBSR

In this 2013 Brown University study, researchers divided participants into two different groups: a test group that underwent MBSR training for 8 weeks, and a control group that did not. After 8 weeks, both groups were analyzed using a brain imaging technique known as magnetoencephalography (MEG).

Participants in the brain scan were told to direct attention to or away from their left index fingers. The MBSR group’s neuronal response was significantly faster than the control groups, as measured by concentration of alpha power.