Attention underlies our ability to complete all mental tasks. Imagine then, the benefits of being able to improve the ability to focus and maintain attention. Such was the theme for this invited symposium at the 23rd Annual APS Convention. This ability to ‘train attention’ is potentially quite valuable for the treatment of working memory deficits and for patients suffering anxiety disorders, who are known to demonstrate an attentional bias for threatening stimuli.
Nader Amir of San Diego State University presented data from work with his simple, computer-based treatment, demonstrating that it was possible to overcome an existing bias for threatening stimuli in patients with anxiety disorder. The training resulted in a lower stress response to a stressful situation. Amir presented remission data, which confirm that this treatment can be useful in the treatment of anxiety disorders. He is currently continuing his work to increase the efficacy of this treatment.
Amishi Jha of the University of Miami shared some of her research with mindfulness stress reduction training. Jha’s research indicates that mindfulness meditation improves the ability to orient attention. The technique requires that the participant learn to maintain his attention and to return it when it wanders. This training may provide protection against the depletion of working memory, which occurs with exposure to high stress. Engagement in mindfulness training was able to prevent such working memory deficits in a study of soldiers.
Yi-Yuan Tang of the University of Oregon focused on a form of mindfulness training known as ‘Attentional State Training.’ Long-term engagement in this training has been shown to improve attention and to also improve the response to stressful situations. Tang explained some of the neural circuitry underlying different forms of attention and shared some of his efforts to examine the neuroplasticity, which may underlie the benefits of mindfulness training. It seems likely that the training influences functioning of the parasympathetic nervous system to allow the individual to better maintain a calm state throughout stressful situations.