Experienced meditators have enhanced control over their eye movements

Young Woman Profile Close upBy Alex Fradera

Mindfulness meditation seems to improve the control we have over our eyes, probably because of its known beneficial effects on attentional systems in the brain. That’s according to research published recently in Consciousness and Cognition.

Veena Kumari and her colleagues tested 29 regular Buddhist mindfulness practitioners (they meditated at least six times per week, and had been doing this for two years or more) and 30 non-meditators on a pair of gaze control tasks.

One involved an onscreen dot jumping from a central spot to another location, and participants had to respond by instantly shifting their gaze, not to the new location, but to a point on the screen exactly opposite that location. This is a demanding task because it requires inhibitory control to suppress the reflexive urge to glance at the target’s new location. Meditators were more consistent at making these “anti-saccades”, showing fewer sudden drops in accuracy that indicate a lapse in control.

Another task required following a dot’s smooth movement across a screen, and meditators made fewer sudden jerky eye movements (saccades) during their tracking of this target, suggesting their eyes were locked onto it more effectively.

As this was a cross-sectional study design, we should beware inferring that meditation causes greater eye movement control. It’s also conceivable there were other relevant differences between the groups besides their levels of meditative practice. But the results do align with other research suggesting that cultivating mindfulness enhances the brain’s attentional systems.

The research also showed that simply being “a mindful kind of person” isn’t sufficient to deliver these benefits: non-meditator scores on a trait measure of mindfulness (measured by agreement with questionnaire items like “‘I watch my feelings without getting lost in them”) weren’t associated with ability on the gaze control tasks. However, the meditators’ scores on trait mindfulness did have some ability to predict their gaze control.

One interpretation of this last finding is that meditation alters an unmeasured variable that contributes both to attentional control and to trait-like mindfulness tendencies like being non-judgmental and non-reactive. Kumari and her colleagues speculated that this variable could relate to emotional regulation or to calming of the brain’s “Default Mode Network” – a system that is more active when we’re resting and that’s associated with mind-wandering.

Whatever the precise mechanisms at play, the study provides yet more evidence that mindfulness meditators are on the road to more focus, rather than spacing-out.

The mindful eye: Smooth pursuit and saccadic eye movements in meditators and non-meditators

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

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