Posted 05.24.2017 | by AMRA

When people aren’t focused on what they’re currently doing, but are instead thinking about the past, or future, or lost in fantasy, they’re said to be “mind wandering.” Psychologists estimate that people spend almost half their waking hours mind wandering, and that they are less happy when doing so. Can on-line programs intending to support attentional capacities help people decrease mind wandering?

In a randomized, controlled study, Bennike et al. [Journal of Cognitive Enhancement] compared the ability of an online mindfulness training program and an online cognitive training program to improve a behavioral measure of sustained attention.

The researchers randomly assigned 137 healthy adult volunteers (average age = 42 years) to either a 4-week mindfulness training using the Headspace application, or a 4-week cognitive training using the Lumosity application. Headspace participants used the online application to practice daily guided meditations that increased in duration over time, starting at 10 minutes daily and ending at 20 minutes daily. Luminosity participants played online games designed to improve memory, attention, cognitive flexibility, processing speed, and problem solving. Lumosity users were instructed to engage in cognitive training for the same durations that Headspace users meditated.

Twenty-one participants in each group were excluded from final data analysis either because they failed to show up for post-testing, or because they were discovered to have had prior mindfulness training.

All participants engaged in a Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART) before and after training. Participants were shown a series of digits on a computer screen, and told to quickly press the space bar whenever they saw a number, except for the number 3. The number 3 was presented only 10% of the time, so that participants had to press the space bar 90% of the time and refrain from pressing it 10% of the time. Success at this task requires sustained attention, and mind wandering interferes with performance outcome. All participants also completed a measure of dispositional mindfulness (the Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale) both before and after intervention.

There was no difference between the groups before training. After training, the mindfulness group showed a significantly greater improvement in SART performance than the cognitive training group. Following training, mindfulness participants correctly refrained from pressing the space bar 68% of the time, while cognitive training participants did so only 56% of the time.

Time spent in mindfulness practice correlated (r = .60) significantly with correctly refraining from pressing the space bar, but time spent in cognitive training didn’t correlate with successful performance. Mindfulness scores increased significantly for the mindfulness training group, but not for the cognitive training group. The time spent in mindfulness practice correlated with post-intervention mindfulness scores (r = .32), and post-intervention mindfulness scores correlated with SART performance (r = .39).

The study shows that online mindfulness training can improve mindfulness and sustained attention, whereas the online cognitive training program used in this study did not. Furthermore, it shows that improved mindfulness and improved sustained attention are positively correlated with each other and that both improve with increased mindfulness practice.

The study is limited by the fact that SART performance is only an indirect measure of mind wandering, as it may also reflect factors such as impulse control. It is also unclear, given the limited published research to date, whether Lumosity should be considered a valid and effective cognitive training application, or whether it served more as a placebo comparison in this study.

Reference:

Bennike, I. H., Wieghorst, A., & Kirk, U. (2017). Online-based mindfulness training reduces behavioral markers of mind wandering. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement.

[Link to abstract]