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Meditation and Executive Attention

Think globally, meditate locally.

Key points

  • Opening-up meditation affects suppression on the Stroop task.
  • Concentrative meditation affects performance on the global/local task.
  • Meditation produces long-term increases in the efficiency of the brain's executive attentional network but no effect on the orientation network.
Meditating Monk
Source: Mike/Pexels

Cognitive psychology has been particularly interested in attention because it is the front gate to the mind. What gets into the mind has to pass through this attentional gate first. Things that don’t get paid attention to don’t enter into our conscious awareness of the world.

"Concentrative" Vs. "Opening-Up" Meditation

Meditation is practice focusing your attention—attending to some things, and not to others—and a number of researchers are examining the benefits of learning how to center our attention. For example, Davina Chan and Marjorie Woollacott (2007) wanted to see if different types of meditation had differing effects on attention. They examined two types of meditation—"concentrative" meditation and "opening-up" meditation. In concentrative meditation, meditators are asked to pay close attention to a specific object. Each time the meditator feels his or her attention wander, they are instructed to (gently) return their attention to it. In opening-up meditation, meditators try to expand their awareness of themselves and the world around them, experiencing their thoughts, feelings, and sensations just as they are in that moment, without judgment or interpretation.

They selected these two forms of meditation because they thought that concentration meditation might be training practitioners to improve a form of attention that involves our ability to orient toward (pay attention to) a specific object. This orientational form of attention produces a change in our “state”—a relatively short-term change in our attention that doesn’t last much longer than the event we’re attending to.

Opening-up meditation, on the other hand, might provide us with practice in executive attention—a more long-term change that would be considered a change in a trait (a characteristic that defines us as an individual over the long term). When we plan what we’ll do next, organize what we know, or solve a problem, we’re using our executive attention functions. Chan and Woollacott hypothesized that opening-up meditation might be training us to monitor the world around us and helping us inhibit responses that are inappropriate or that won’t help us achieve our goals.

Testing Attention

To test attention, you need a task that requires us to pay attention and one that we regularly make mistakes on. Mistakes indicate lapses in our ability to pay attention. Chan and Woollacott asked regular practitioners of these two kinds of meditation, along with a control group of nonmeditators, to try their hands at two classic tests of attention.

The first is the Stroop Task, which measures executive attention. The participants were first given a sheet of paper with the names of colors, each printed in black ink, and were asked to read the words as fast as they could in 45 seconds. The second page consisted of a series of X’s printed in colored ink, and participants were asked to name the color the X’s were printed in as quickly as they could. Finally, they were given a page of color names, printed either in “congruent colors” (e.g., the word "green" printed in green ink) or “incongruent colors” (e.g., the word "green" printed in red ink). Participants were asked to name the color of the ink as quickly as possible. The researchers measured reaction time on the congruent and incongruent tasks. In order to do well, we need to pay more attention on an incongruent task. In fact, we need to suppress our normal response to a word stimulus like the ones used in a Stroop test, which would be to read the word. Suppression takes time, so this task should give us a measure of how well we’re using our executive attention.

Regular, practiced meditators were better at the Stroop task than were nonmeditators. And, the more practice one had in meditating, the better the score on the extra-tricky incongruent stimulus part of the Stroop task.

Chan and Woollacott also tested concentrative meditation, asking participants to pay close attention to a specific object. In this experiment, the researchers used the global/local task. Participants are asked to name either the “global” letter or the “local” letters used to make up a stimulus as quickly as possible. For example, participants would be presented with the letter H made up of the letter S (an incongruent stimulus with H as the global stimulus and S as the local one). In other trials, the stimulus might be the letter H made up of smaller H’s (a congruent stimulus). On some trials, participants were asked to attend to the global target; on others, the local target.

Typically, we’re faster when we’re asked to name the global (larger) stimulus. This is likely because we have more practice at attending to the larger, more holistic aspects of the task and so we’re faster at noticing them. When asked to attend to the smaller, local letters, the larger letter will interfere, and our reaction time will slow down, producing the global precedence effect.

Again, practiced meditators were better at the global/local task than were nonmeditators, but, interestingly, this effect only showed up when the volunteers were asked to attend to the global target. When they compared the performance of meditators and nonmeditators on the local target task, there was no significant difference at all.


Chan and Woollacott concluded that the type of meditation their volunteers had experience with didn’t matter. They only saw differences between the two types of meditators when they looked at what are known as “interference effects”—reaction time on the incongruent task vs. the congruent ones. Suppressing our normal response to just read the word or the letter is an executive function task. Chan and Woollacott found that meditation reduced interference on the Stroop task but not on the global/local task. So, they concluded that meditation produces "long-term increases in the efficiency of the executive attentional network” in the brain “but no effect on the orientation network,” perhaps located in a different part of the brain.


Chan, D., and Woollacott, M. (2007). Effects of Level of Meditation Experience on Attentional Focus: Is the Efficiency of Executive or Orientation Networks Improved? The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 13(4), 651–657.