Mindfulness requires cognitive effort and so practice places demands on a meditator’s attention. Many psychological disorders include impairment in attention as a symptom, and patients with attentional impairment may find mindfulness practice too frustrating to sustain. Medications that improve attentional focus may help mindfulness practitioners gain more from their practice.
Modafinil is a medication that improves attention in patients with daytime sleepiness due to problems sleeping. Its psychopharmacologic effects mirror some of the attentional improvements seen in mindfulness training.
Thomas et al. [Journal of Psychopharmacology] tested the effects of modafinil on self-reported state mindfulness, mind wandering, and vigilance among participants practicing mindfulness or relaxation training.
The researchers randomly assigned 80 healthy meditation-naïve participants (average age=25 years; 50% male) to one of four groups: modafinil + mindfulness, modafinil + relaxation, placebo + mindfulness, and placebo + relaxation. Participants were blinded to drug and practice type. On the first day of an eight-day intervention, participants received 200mg of modafinil or a placebo pill and trained in mindfulness or relaxation.
Participants completed assessments immediately before and two hours after medication delivery, and again immediately after initial meditation or relaxation on a variety of measures.
Over the next six days, participants engaged in daily home practice of mindfulness or relaxation techniques, and were then reassessed on the eighth day. Outcome measures included state and trait mindfulness, mood, mind-wandering, heart rate variability, and sustained attention.
Mindfulness and relaxation trainings were delivered as 10-minute audio recordings that contained brief instruction and practice. Mindfulness instructions involved focused attention on the breath.
Relaxation instructions involved abdominal breathing and intentional muscle relaxation. Both sets of instructions emphasized returning to task if one’s mind wandered.
Post-training mind-wandering was assessed by having participants practice either mindfulness or relaxation for 16 minutes, and click on a keyboard mouse whenever their minds wandered. Sustained attention was measured by response times to stimuli randomly presented on a computer screen. This task is known to be sensitive to both mindfulness training and modafinil.
Results from the single day experiment showed modafinil improved state mindfulness before (d=0.34) and after both mindfulness and relaxation training (d=0.45), and to a similar extent by group. Modafinil improved positive mood before (d=0.54) and after the trainings (d=0.60), and to a similar extent by group.
Heart rate variability (a sign of increased parasympathetic activity) increased in the mindfulness group but not the relaxation group (d=0.52). Modafinil significantly improved sustained attention in both groups (partial η2=0.07). There were no drug or group effects on subjective mind-wandering.
After eight days of home meditation or relaxation practice, all groups significantly improved on state mindfulness. Groups who received modafinil on the first day of the intervention showed significantly more weekly home practice (average = 55 mins) than those who received placebo (average = 36 mins).
The study shows that modafinil improves state mindfulness, sustained attention, and positive mood in a single-day experiment. When given at baseline, it increases practice effort over the course of about a week. Mindfulness training increases heart rate variability more than relaxation training, but there were no differences between the trainings on state mindfulness.
The absence of any difference between the groups on state mindfulness may be due to similarities between the trainings, as both involved breathing and instructions to maintain focus. The study is limited by the brevity of its trainings, and lack of emphasis on non-judgmental awareness in the mindfulness group.
Thomas, E. M., Freeman, T. P., Poplutz, P., Howden, K., Hindocha, C., Bloomfield, M., & Kamboj, S. K. (2021). Stimulating meditation: A pre-registered randomised controlled experiment combining a single dose of the cognitive enhancer, modafinil, with brief mindfulness training. Journal of Psychopharmacology.
[Link to study]