New research provides evidence that a short mindfulness meditation session can improve motor control and selective attention in both novices and experienced meditators. The findings have been published in Frontiers in Psychology.
Mindfulness meditation is a mental practice that involves training attention to be fully focused on the present moment with curiosity, openness, and acceptance. It requires observing thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judgment or expectations. Attention and inhibition are key cognitive processes involved in mindfulness meditation, as attention is needed to maintain focus on the present moment, while inhibition helps suppress irrelevant thoughts and distractions.
The existing literature supports the positive effects of both short-term and long-term mindfulness meditation practice on cognitive functions such as attention, inhibition, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Even a single brief session of mindfulness meditation has been shown to enhance cognitive performance, especially in tasks involving complex higher-order functions.
However, the effects of mindfulness meditation on motor performance are not well understood, particularly in relation to the underlying mechanisms of action. To address these gaps, the researchers conducted the present study. They specifically focused on a bimanual coordination task, a complex motor skill that requires cognitive resources such as attention and inhibition.
“I have a longstanding interest in the interactions between cognitive and motor processes and the mechanisms through which training one domain can transfer to the other. A good deal of literature exists on how physical activity can promote cognitive functioning and mental well-being, but the opposite is still very limited,” explained study author Rita Sleimen-Malkoun, an assistant professor at Aix-Marseille University.
To assess the effects of mindfulness meditation on motor control and cognitive functions, the researchers recruited 55 healthy participants, including both meditators (with previous mindfulness meditation experience) and novices (without previous experience). The participants were randomly assigned to either the mindfulness meditation intervention or an active control intervention involving attentive listening to a podcast.
To evaluate motor control, the researchers used a cyclic bimanual coordination task, which is a well-established paradigm for studying motor control and the involvement of cognitive resources. This task involved coordinating movements of both hands in either an in-phase pattern (symmetrical movements) or an anti-phase pattern (asymmetrical movements). The stability of these patterns and the ability to maintain them at high movement frequencies are influenced by cognitive processes such as attention and inhibition.
The effects of the interventions on attention and inhibition were measured using the D2 test and MAPIT task, respectively.
The researchers found that both the mindfulness meditation session and the active control intervention improved bimanual coordination (coordination between both hands) to a similar extent. However, the mindfulness meditation session specifically enhanced intentional maintenance of a specific coordination pattern called the anti-phase pattern. This indicates that mindfulness meditation can improve motor control skills even after just a 15-minute session, regardless of previous meditation experience.
Additionally, both interventions improved selective attention (the ability to focus on relevant information) similarly. The results also suggested that the attentional aspect of mindfulness meditation contributes to improved motor control, while the present-moment focus aspect of meditation enhances inhibitory mechanisms. The mindfulness meditation session also improved motor inhibition (the ability to stop specific movements) in both novices and experienced meditators.
“I think there are several take home messages from the study. The first one is that one can benefit from mindfulness meditation even following a brief practice, and even without the need of previous experience, which was attested by the absence of differences between regular meditators and meditation-naïve participants,” Sleimen-Malkoun told PsyPost.
“Another message is that a brief mindfulness meditation session can (transiently) reduce reflexive or habitual responding by improving the capacity to suppress such prevalent responses when inappropriate, which we found through the analysis of motor inhibition scores of the MAPIT cognitive test. This effect was also concomitant to a better intentional motor control under high task demands, as shown by the improved capacities to successfully maintain the required bimanual movement pattern at maximal speed.”
However, there was no significant improvement in preventing the effects of irrelevant visual stimuli on motor control. This suggests that mindfulness meditation may help suppress automatic responses but might not completely prevent the interference of distracting stimuli.
“What came as a little surprise was the absence of improvement of perceptual inhibition capacities, that is the capacity to inhibit irrelevant information, in the mindfulness meditation group,” Sleimen-Malkoun said. “Nevertheless, we know that mindfulness practice capitalizes on a present-centered awareness by bringing back the attention to the object of the meditation, or to the present experience in general, rather than on inhibiting what can be identified as a distractor.”
The study, like all research, includes some limitations. The study only assessed a limited number of cognitive functions. Future studies could consider assessing other cognitive functions relevant to motor skills, such as cognitive flexibility and working memory, to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the cognitive effects of mindfulness meditation.
“Many open questions remain to be addressed especially in relation with the underlying mechanisms of action of the observed benefits as well as their neural underpinnings,” Sleimen-Malkoun told PsyPost.
The study, “Mindfulness meditation and bimanual coordination control: study of acute effects and the mediating role of cognition“, was authored by Louise Devillers-Réolon, Jean-Jacques Temprado, and Rita Sleimen-Malkoun.