King and Coney compared the cognitive performances of 27 experienced meditators and 27 non-meditators immediately following their respective meditation or relaxation sessions in order to find the short term effects of meditation on cognitive functions. A battery of seven tests were used to measure cognitive performance and results showed there was no significant difference between the performance of the meditation group and the relaxation group in any of the seven tests.
The practice of meditation is said to improve concentration, reduce the meditator's vulnerability to distractions, and open their mind by relinquishing expectations and preconceptions. The meditator should minimize goal directed mental activity and increase non-judgmental reasoning. The authors reflect on the literature that posits physiological reactions to meditation that may alter cognitive functions, such as increased activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.
The pre- and post-tests attempted to measure the participants' general intelligence, verbal fluency, spatial reasoning, spatial memory, verbal memory, verbal short term memory, and spatial short term memory. Between the pre- and post-tests, the meditation group participated in mindful meditation for twenty minutes while the other group relaxed in a quiet setting. The meditating group was instructed to attempt the deepest meditation mindset they could within this time frame while the relaxation group was instructed to match the meditation group's physical stature, sitting upright with their eyes closed, but to resist falling asleep. This occurred at their respective testing desks. All participants took the post-tests in the same order as they had taken the pre-test and results were calculated in the same way.
Pre-test results show that the two groups were well-matched on abilities from the start. Post-test results showed almost parallel changes in performance between the two groups, both by individual test and multivariate analysis. Interestingly, some post-test results showed a decline in performance, albeit small. Finally, the research found a negative correlation between the amount of experience the meditators had with their test results in two of the tests, though the authors proved a stronger negative correlation between results and age, which is to be expected since cognitive functions are known to decline with age, suggesting this is what drove the scores down rather than increased experience meditating. Overall neither technique, meditation or relaxation, had a significant effect on cognitive performance, except for in two tests, the spatial reasoning and spatial short term memory tests.
The authors carefully detail their testing measurements and their efforts to mitigate biases or false results. Beyond explaining the tests themselves, they explain how they administered the test, making their research more easily replicated. Still, the authors admit that the way they split test questions for pre- and post-test use may have made an uneven distribution in terms of difficulty, skewing the performance results. Because both groups took the same tests in the same order, this would not effect the comparative results.
The authors posit three potential reasons the meditation group did not display better cognitive performance in the study: 1. the group did not achieve a similar altered state to those in previous research, 2. the test measures were insensitive to the type of change meditation induces, and 3. the tests were unable to capture the rapidly diminishing effects of short term meditation. Some members of the meditating group did report being unable to reach their normal "depth" of meditation, though this is subjective and difficult if not impossible to compare across the group. No matter what the cause, the results show little promise for the intelligence community as it is unlikely meditation could be successfully used to improve analysis if the setting of meditation so easily disturbs results, the effects are limited to very narrow cognitive functions, or the effects last such a short amount of time.
King, G. and Coney, J. (2006). Short term effects of meditation versus relaxation on cognitive functioning. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 38(2), 200-215.