Research suggests that anyone can improve attention by practicing mindfulness — cognitive fitness training aimed at building real-time and compassionate awareness of our lives rather than remaining lost in distraction, on autopilot.
When people hear that attention is trainable, they wonder about using meditation to treat ADHD. But ADHD and mindfulness affect more than attention. The processes involved in ADHD and mindfulness mirror each other. ADHD is characterized by difficulties with executive function, not just attention, and mindfulness is an avenue to developing interrelated cognitive skills, many related to executive function, not just attention.
Future directions for ADHD care may incorporate approaches based on mindfulness. After all, if you train attention with mindfulness, attention improves. This alone is a valuable treatment approach through which anyone, with or without ADHD, can benefit. While nothing published to date suggests that mindfulness, on its own, can overcome the genetics of ADHD, practicing mindfulness develops a larger set of traits, including responsiveness, flexible thinking, and compassion. With ADHD, mindfulness supports improved resilience and a capacity to manage the challenges of life.
Build Cognitive Traits
For all of these reasons, mindfulness affects the lives of families who commit to practicing it together. The number of research papers dedicated to mindfulness has increased dramatically over the past several decades, and the results consistently point to the same exceptional fact: We have the capacity to build cognitive traits that advance both physical and mental health. Mindfulness benefits everything from stress and anxiety to depression, sometimes after as little as a week of practice.
Research shows that the brain responds to mindfulness training with physical changes. Thinning of the brain’s outer surface has been described as an inevitable part of aging, yet one Harvard study showed that long-term meditators experienced no loss. Studies have shown that some areas of the brain, including areas related to emotion regulation, grew during an eight-week mindfulness program. And studies involving both imaging and patterns of activation in the brain have shown alterations correlating with greater emotional control, wellbeing, and happiness.
While research in children isn’t as extensive as that in adults, it has generally shown the same benefits, with improvements in reducing stress, increasing attention, and sharpening executive function, in addition to other behavioral measures. In one UCLA study, children who lagged behind their peers in executive function at the start of a mindfulness program experienced larger gains than their classmates.
Children may also engage in more acts of compassion after mindfulness practice. In one study, preschool children were asked to give stickers to kids in a group that included children they identified as liking, not liking, or not knowing. Initially, most were given to friends. After participating in a mindfulness program, the same children handed out the stickers more evenly among all the groups.
Research is now zeroing in on mindfulness and ADHD. In one study, both adolescents with ADHD and their parents reported decreased stress levels and fewer ADHD symptoms after a mindfulness program. Mindfulness has been correlated with improvements similar to those with medication for several aspects of attention and cognition. And traits inherent to ADHD, such as impulsiveness and emotional reactivity, respond to mindfulness practice, as do some aspects of executive function.