WAUKESHA, WIS.— Dr. Christopher May, assistant professor of psychology at Carroll University, published a study on meditation in the September 2011 issue of the journal “Mindfulness.” He then was invited to write a brief summary of that research for a blog about the latest meditation research and resources that is published by the University of California-San Diego Center for Mindfulness.
The research article, “Short-term practice of loving-kindness meditation produces a state, but not a trait, alteration of attention,” first distinguishes the difference between two types of contemplative practice. Concentrative (or breath-focused) meditation is designed to strengthen attention, enabling the practitioner to remain focused, while loving-kindness meditation is designed to strengthen feelings of love and kindness and enable the practitioner to intentionally direct these feelings toward other people. May’s research demonstrated that loving-kindness meditation also affects cognition.
An experiment tested participants before and after they began loving-kindness meditation training and compared them to a non-meditating control group. Participants who had training practiced emotion-focused meditation for 15 minutes, four days per week, for eight weeks. After their training, meditators practiced loving-kindness meditation one final time before doing the attentional blink task.
In this task, participants were shown a stream of letters, which rapidly flashed at the center of a computer screen. Within this stream, participants were asked to identify two targets: a number and the letter X. The attentional blink refers to a decreased ability to correctly identify whether or not the X appeared when it is presented shortly after the first target. It is as though one’s attention, caught up in processing the first target, blinks, thereby missing the second target.
Results showed that these meditators had a reduced attentional blink –they were better able to identify the second target compared to their pre-training performance, and compared to the non-meditating controls. “In short, loving-kindness meditation enabled the practitioners to see more,” May said. “This effect validates one goal of meditation in Buddhism, which is to more accurately see reality.”
This research was conducted with the help of several Carroll students, including Michelle Burgard ’10, a Pioneer Scholar in summer 2009. Other co-authors are students from May’s psychology research seminar course taught in spring 2010.
A resident of Milwaukee, May joined the Carroll faculty in 2007. He specializes in experimental research and computational modeling of the effects of meditation on the mind and brain. He teaches a first-year course on mystical cultures, and biopsychology, behavioral neuroscience, research seminar and neuroscience courses in the psychology program. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Tulane University, and a master’s and a doctor of psychology degree from the University of California-Davis.