If there’s anything we’ve lost sight of in the information age, it might be singular focus — the ability to concentrate on one thing for a lengthy period of time without having our mind wander. For some people, it’s tough to sit down and read a book for hours without checking a smartphone or getting distracted by the Internet’s endless supply of memes, articles, and threads. The way that we take in information has changed; we’re more likely to skim headlines or look at photos, which means reading a paper book or newspaper cover to cover — and reaching a deeper level of concentration — has become rare.

But you may still be able to sharpen your focus and get throughlong books like Infinite Jest, just like you’ve always meant to. In a new study, researchers at the University of California, Davis found that practicing meditation could improve a person’s focus while reading. Over the course of thousands of years, people have practiced meditation for many reasons — to reach a certain level of spirituality, to improve self-awareness or relaxation, and in some cases, to train the mind not to wander. The researchers used meditation in their study as a focus training of sorts.

“It is challenging for individuals to maintain their attention on ongoing cognitive tasks without being distracted by task-unrelated thought,” the researchers wrote in the study abstract. “The wandering mind is thus a considerable obstacle when attention must be maintained over time. Mental training through meditation has been proposed as an effective method of attenuating the ebb and flow of attention to thoughts and feelings that distract from one’s foremost present goals.”

In recent years, meditation has gained traction as being a beneficial practice for back pain, anxiety, migraines, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even improving your sense of touch. In 2015, researchers found that meditation could also change your brain and rebuild cognitive function. With all of these so-called benefits, it’s not surprising to learn that meditation also aids the mind.

Reeling In The Wandering Mind

The researchers set up two studies. The first involved 30 participants who went to an intensive shamatha meditation training for three months in the Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado. Both before and after attending the training, the participants were asked to detect gibberish or nonsensical sentences in a children’s story. After attending the meditation training, they detected the gibberish more quickly, and reported improved attention while reading it. The researchers tested them again seven years later, and found that the improvements remained consistent. This first study had no control group, however, and it’s possible that the participants' improvement on the test following the retreat was simply because they had done the test before and knew what to expect.

In the second study, the researchers gathered 55 participants from the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. All of these participants were familiar with meditation, but they were split into two groups: Twenty-eight of them attended a one-month intensive vipassanā meditation training program, while the other 27 did not. Those who had gone to the training program were better able to detect gibberish in the story than the control group.

“Meditation practitioners across both studies demonstrated greater levels of error monitoring following training, as measured by their ability to detect gross semantic violations in the text,” lead author Anthony Zanesco said. “This suggests that training group participants were more attentive to the story content and ongoing text, allowing them to better detect these salient text discrepancies.”

The notion that meditation can boost your concentration certainly is far from novel. For thousands of years, Buddhists and other religious groups have been using meditation techniques to calm their minds and bring them to singular focus, most often with breathing, which in turns spills over into your daily life and tasks. One 2010 study found that people who practiced meditation were better at focusing on a boring task that required intense attention, as it seemed to improve their visual discrimination. Better singular focus may mean improved work ethic and also lower stress. Even if you’re meditating for just a short 10 minutes a day, the improvement in your focus may be worth it.

Source: Zanesco A, King B, MacLean K, Jacobs T, Aichele S, Wallace B. Meditation training influences mind wandering and mindless reading. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 2016.