Scientists have developed a personalised digital meditation training programme that significantly improves attention and memory in young adults in just six weeks.
The intervention, called MediTrain, utilises an algorithm that tailors the length of the meditation sessions to the abilities of the participants, so they are not discouraged by their initial attempts to focus attention on their breath, a time-honoured meditation technique.
Scientists from University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) in the US tested the programme in a trial with 59 participants between 18 and 35 years old.
According to the research published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, the magnitude of the effects on attention and memory were similar to what has been seen in previous studies of middle-aged adults after months of in-person training or intensive meditation retreats.
The app-based programme, however, required just 20 to 30 minutes of cummulative practice each day, composed of many very short meditation periods. In the beginning, participants were prompted to pay attention to their breath for just 10 to 15 seconds at a time.
As they improved over the six weeks, the application challenged them to increase the amount of time they could maintain focus, which averaged several minutes after six weeks.
"This is not like any meditation practice that exists, as far as we are aware," said Adam Gazzaley, a professor at UCSF.
"We took an ancient experiential treatment of focused meditation, reformulated it and delivered it through a digital technology, and improved attention span in millennials, an age group that is intimately familiar with the digital world, but also faces multiple challenges to sustained attention," said Gazzaley.
MediTrain had digital features that are not present in the traditional practice of breath meditation and that may have been the reason why it achieved such strong results over such a short period and with such a healthy population.
It underscored the need to pay attention by requiring participants to regularly check in on how they were doing.
At the end of each brief meditation segment, participants were asked to indicate whether they had been able to pay continuous attention for the allotted time
For those who said yes, the application adapted to a slightly longer meditation period; for those who said no, the period was shortened.
The researchers believe the participatory nature of the design was important.
"Not only do you learn how to maintain focus on your breath, but you are also required to introspect on how well you're able to do that," Gazzaley said.
"We believe that's part of the active ingredient of this treatment," he said.
MediTrain also gave everyone regular feedback, with progress reports during the training sessions, at the end of each day of training and at the end of each week.
The results were impressive, researchers said. On their first day, participants could stay focused on their breath for an average of only 20 seconds. After 30 days of training, that rose to an average of six minutes.
This improvement, in turn, conferred better performance on other, much more complicated tasks that scientists use to assess sustained attention and working memory.
Not only did the MediTrain participants perform more consistently on attention tests than the placebo group, the scientists also found a correlation between how long participants were able to focus on their breath and how consistently they performed on these tests.
The MediTrain group also performed better than the placebo group on a test of working memory, measured after the intervention.