Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation Training on Multitasking in a High-Stress Information Environment

In The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation Training on Multitasking in a High-Stress Information Environment, Levy et al. discussed an experiment they conducted testing the effects of mindfulness meditation training on multitasking. Over an 8-week period, tests were conducted on three groups: a group that received mindfulness mediation training (Group A), a control group that received no training (Group B) and a group that received relaxation training (Group C). Group B, the initial control group, was given a pre- and post-test and then was given the same meditation training as Group A for the subsequent 8-week period. The participants of Group A were from San Francisco and those from Group B and C were from Seattle, and all participants were females who were human resource personnel around the age of 45. Additionally, each group underwent stressful multitasking operations that simulated an office job.

Mindfulness meditation consists of Focused Attention (FA) mediation and Open Monitoring (OM) meditation. In FA training, meditators are told to focus on the "in and out" of their breath and when distracted, to redirect their attention to their breath. In OM training, meditators are told to allow into awareness whatever comes to mind and then release it from their attention. The training in this study was mostly Focused Attention training. Neuroscientific studies on the effects of meditation on multitasking are promising but do not show real-world application.

Results showed that the meditation group, Group A, did show improvement in several areas tested by the multitasking operations. While the meditation group expected less benefit initially than the relaxation and control group, they recorded a higher expectation of benefit at the end. As multitasking often leaves people feeling negative emotions, the meditation training group had significantly less of a pre- to post-task increase in negative emotions as well than the other groups. Additionally, the meditation group's mindful awareness and attention after training increased, their memory for the task improved and they showed a reduced number of task-switches and greater time spent on each task. Group B showed similar results after entering the second 8-week period in which they received actual meditation training.

The biggest limitation of the study is that the groups were not completely randomized. Some of the participants were chosen in San Francisco and others were chosen in Seattle. Likewise, those chosen from their respective cities were not mixed between groups. Additionally, the training was only performed on females near the age of 45 which may introduce bias into the results. Another limitation is that the test required human intervention both in administering the test and in the data analysis. I am also curious to know whether the participants knew the exact purpose of the study which may have shaped their behavior somehow.

It would be interesting to see the results of a similar study conducted on professionals in the intelligence community. Meditation training, and specifically mindfulness meditation training, holds potential for those working in high-stress environments that often require multi-tasking. Introducing this kind of study into much different profession that also experiences high-stress may be beneficial to the participants. This study was valuable in that it was the first to test the real-world applications of meditation training on multitasking operations.

Levy, D., Wobbrock, J., Kaszniak, A., & Ostergren, M. (n.d.). The effects of mindfulness meditation training on multitasking in a high-stress information environment. Graphics Interface, doi: 2012

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