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Improved Reading Comprehension Via Meditation?

The following is an excerpt of my thesis project for my Master's Degree.

I wondered if students could become better readers as a result of six weeks of meditation. I wondered if practicing Focused Attention Meditation would build the skill of sustaining attention during this practice as well as transferring their skill during reading of academic text, specifically in my reading class. I was interested in exploring meditation as an approach to academic acceleration.

Observing the Brain

A study done by Sara Van Leeuwen, Wolf Singer, and Lucia Melloni (2012), “Meditation increases the depth of information processing and improves the allocation of attention in space”, looked at the brain to measure electroencephalographic activity.



Reading Requires Paying Attention

Sustained attention is built by practicing the skill of bringing the wandering mind back to the point of focus. According to Van Leeuwen, S., Singer, W. & Melloni, L. (2012), the ability to bring attention back to a focal point can be taught: During meditation, practitioners are required to center their attention on a specific object for extended periods of time. When their thoughts get diverted, they learn to quickly disengage from the distracter. 

What is Focused Attention Meditation (FAM)? 

According to Lee TMC, Leung M-K, Hou W-K, Tang JCY, Yin J, et al. (2012), the most common style of meditation is FAM: Among the broad array of meditation practices, the most basic and widely studied form is concentrative or focused-attention meditation (FAM). FAM practitioners focus their entire attention upon an object or a bodily sensation and, whenever they are distracted by external stimuli or inner thoughts, they bring their attention back to that object or sensation. The goal is to achieve a clear (vivid) and unwavering (calm and stable) state free from distraction. FAM's reported major longterm benefit is cognitive—attentional control. 

My definition of FAM is that a person intentionally focuses on an object such as a specific location or the breath, and to return to this focal point when the mind wanders off. I chose this style of meditation because it is most directly connected to the act of reading. Having a focal point during meditation, I hoped, would translate to maintaining a focus on the words on a screen or page. My hypothesis was that this was a skill that could be practiced and built over time. 



The following are excerpts of student reports of their reading experience in relation to Focused Attention Mediation. Interview One took place after six sessions of ten minutes FAM. 



Interview One: February 14, 2013 

The following are sample responses to Question #1: How might meditation help you to pay attention?

"It (meditation) made me focus more. I can get tunnel vision when I do it. And I don't have all those distractions. I can focus on that particular thought - the breathing helps clear my mind” (G.F.).

“We start the meditation at the beginning of class, so I feel like I can slow down before class, relaxing, and make myself more focusing” (K.S.).

The following are sample responses to Question #2: How might meditation help you to read better?

"I'm much more concentrated. I never really used to concentrate. I get distracted very easily, but after doing the penny, it made me concentrate a little more. Following the breath really helps. I just feel concentrated when I'm reading. Just breathe with it when I'm reading and I just keep going" (S.V.).

"Meditation helps me focus more on what I'm reading rather than just looking at the  words" (K.A.).




The following are excerpts of student reports of their reading experience in relation to Focused Attention Mediation. Interview Two took place after twelve sessions of ten minutes FAM.
 
Interview Two: April 1, 2013

The following are sample responses to Question #1: Describe how your participation in this study has affected your personal experience as a reading student.

"I guess I slow down and pay attention more to what I'm reading instead of just reading and think I'm reading... Meditation helps me focus more on what I'm reading rather than just looking at the words” (K.A.).

"Following the breath really helps... I'm reading, I breathe with it. Every time I start I breathe with it” (S.V.)

"It made me focus more. And I don't have all those distractions” (G.F.)

The following are sample responses to Question #2: Tell me about your experience of reading over the course of the semester.

"I'm not a big reader... But, um, now I just pick things up. I can really pay attention to it now and I know how to enjoy it. I read a couple more hours than I used to per week” (I.P.).

The following are sample responses to the follow-up questions for Question #2: How much time are you spending reading? Has this remained constant or has it changed since the start of the semester? Why do you think this is?

"Combination, because we do reading stuff in here and it makes me read more and get more depth into it. And the penny that's helped my attention because it makes me feel calm in general and while I'm reading" (K.A.)

"A combination because it's what I'm learning in class for one something I've never paid attention to. And from the study, it helps me to relax my mind and block everything else out and be able to focus on what I'm actually reading” (S.V.)


Summary

Reading requires the ability to pay attention to the text on the page.  The brain is plastic - able to learn and grow. FAM builds the skill and brain development to attend to stimuli. This is not to say that mediation is the only route to building sustained attention, but according to students' self-reporting, my observations and the included outside resources, there seems to be a correlation between building focused attention and ability to read and comprehend.   



References


Lee TMC, Leung M-K, Hou W-K, Tang JCY, Yin J, et al. (2012) Distinct Neural Activity Associated with Focused-Attention Meditation and Loving-Kindness Meditation. PLoS ONE 7(8): e40054. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0040054

Stulock, Alexander. (2011) Penny. https://www.flickr.com/photos/macrostock/5606519549/in/photolist-9xqSWa-7SuPDS-88TMuP-47EQwj-6pXLU5-4mivwJ-6n1M3u-bzbDg6-6eEk72-9KT56p-ws8iog-4jPj9T-8rnoPo-5u6jud-jni1gv-i5EbiH-v5eSR-Cs7pTf-bmALC-6zUWFi-6YEMQ4-8MFehN-YyoKxD-6eEPfR-6mWw5i-4nnZ4u-6BWUC4-ccm7jd-4M6DRd-6ToKGn-U676WN-9cWKs-dwVkh-b127KZ-cDhLT3-RrM9x3-261UjkK-9jLCKe-edj5D4-8Qjyke-5CkHCh-ekWs9e-v4obF-4XQMGP-9EaBiU-fJ7E12-QTkk2-npcSAa-4twGQ5-LUqg4h

Van Leeuwen, S., Singer, W., & Melloni, L. (2012). Meditation increases the depth of information processing and improves the allocation of attention in space. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://dx.doi.org/10.3389%2Ffnhum. 2012.00133 

Voyeur, Hotlanta. (2015) Brain Scan. https://www.flickr.com/photos/hotlantavoyeur/16097481443/in/photolist-qwtNpv-5i4Dug-5yopMG-8x8Xav-bCAqi4-6r4Z5v-5tbTPu-dTW2xo-613SBd-5htVjc-5i8Z4o-6NToDV-5YtTYv-5i96nW-5tjHwH-7Qw4kP-5j2oDy-5uPjMA-5m5Pns-9nXrHr-5jjYwD-5ZsWVY-cttizA-9kasot-ck6hzw-5TQrA4-9o3GNk-26cJXe-4Kwxiz-7yFS1k-ebUggV-3bCpYY-GBHhns-7F3ow-GBHhjG-7F3pk-dCQ3Ks-bU4bSX-rkfkWM-GCeD6-bU4cyR-bF9rqd-bF9rV9-bU4cCr-rqGzw-9mKWav-bU4cqM-5DGjdm-bF9s7J-PKQgv

Lisa J
English, Reading, Video Production
University of Iowa
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