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Year : 2012  |  Volume : 32  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 49-53

Performance in attentional tasks following meditative focusing and focusing without meditation

1 Division of Yoga and Life Sciences, Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana, Bengaluru, India
2 Director, Pata˝jali Research Foundation, Haridwar, India

Date of Web Publication21-Jun-2013

Correspondence Address:
Shirley Telles
Patañjali Research Foundation, Patañjali Yogpeeth, Haridwar, Uttarakhand 249 408
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0257-7941.113799

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Background/Aims: Ancient Indian yoga texts have described four mental states. These are caïcalatä (random thinking), ekāgratā (focusing without meditation), dhāranā (meditative focusing), and dhyāna (defocused meditative expansiveness). A previous study compared the performance in a cancellation task at the beginning and end of each of the four mental states (practiced for 20 minutes each, on four separate days) showed an increase in the scores after dhāranā. Hence, the present study was designed to assess the effects of dhāranā (meditative focusing) and ekāgratā (focusing without meditation) on two attention tasks (i) d2 test of attention and (ii) digit symbol substitution test. Materials and Methods: Sixty normal healthy male volunteers with ages ranging from 17 to 38 years (group mean age ± S.D., 24.87 ± 4.95) were studied. Assessments were made before and after the practice of ekāgratā and dhāranā on two separate days. Results: After both types of focusing, there was a significant improvement in all measures of the d2 test of attention (TN, E, TN-E, E%, and CP). However, the performance in the digit symbol substitution test was better after dhāraā but did not change after ekāgratā. Conclusions: Hence, in summary, dhāranā (meditative focusing) and ekāgratā (focusing without meditation) produce nearly comparable results though dhāranā (meditative focusing) results in better incidental learning and better accuracy (as assessed by the substitution task).

Keywords: Attention, concentration, dhāranā, ekāgratā, incidental learning

How to cite this article:
Raghavendra B R, Telles S. Performance in attentional tasks following meditative focusing and focusing without meditation . Ancient Sci Life 2012;32:49-53

How to cite this URL:
Raghavendra B R, Telles S. Performance in attentional tasks following meditative focusing and focusing without meditation . Ancient Sci Life [serial online] 2012 [cited 2023 Feb 6];32:49-53. Available from: https://www.ancientscienceoflife.org/text.asp?2012/32/1/49/113799

  Introduction Top

Meditation has been defined as a training in awareness, which when practiced over a period of time produces definite changes in perception, attention, and cognition.[1] Meditation is also recognized as a specific consciousness state in which deep relaxation and increased internalized attention exist at the same time.[2]

All meditation practices have been classified into two main categories, based on how attention is directed.[3] One category is called focused attention meditation (FA), during which attention is sustained and focused on a given object. The second category is called open monitoring meditation (OM), where meditators are required not to react, while monitoring the content of ongoing experience. This style is a method by which the practitioner is aware of all mental content from one moment to the next.

More recently, the description has been expanded to include a third category, automatic self-transcending. A study described the three broad categories of meditation techniques and their EEG patterns.[4] The three categories were as follows: (i) Focused attention meditation, (ii) open monitoring meditation, and (iii) automatic self-transcending which includes techniques intended to transcend their own activity. The changes in EEG were higher gamma power and coherence during focused attention meditation, decreased frontal delta and increased frontal midline theta during open monitoring meditation, and higher frontal alpha 1 coherence during automatic self-transcending meditation. These changes were consistent with the idea that focused attention meditation would be associated with EEG changes seen during directed attention, whereas open monitoring meditation and self-transcending were associated with lower frequency EEG bands, usually associated with relaxation.[4]

These classifications are compatible with the concept of meditation in an ancient Indian yoga text (Patañjali's Yoga Sūtras; circa 900 B.C.). Meditation was considered as the final practice before the individual reaches the state of ultimate transcendence called samādhi. There were eight stages systematically described by the Sage Patañjali in the Yoga Sūtras (aphorisms). These eight stages are (i) and (ii) yamas and niyamas (rules for good conduct), (iii) āsanas (physical postures), (iv) prānāyāmas (voluntarily regulated breathing), (v) pratyāhāra (withdrawal, particularly from external sensations), (vi) dhāranā (meditative focusing), (vii) dhyāna (a defocused state of mental expansiveness), and (viii) samādhi (an experience of transcendence or ultimate realization). The sixth and seventh stages pertain to meditation. The sixth stage is known as dhāranā (meditative focusing) which is defined as confining the mind within a limited mental area (“deśa-bandhaścittasya dhāranā; Patañjali's Yoga Sūtras, Chapter III, Verse 1).[5] The seventh stage, dhyāna is supposed to inevitably follow the stage of dhāranā (meditative focusing). The eighth stage is one of ultimate spiritual realization (samādhi).

Apart from dhāranā and dhyāna there are two other mental states, i.e. caïcalatä and ekāgratā, described in another ancient text (the Bhagavadgītā, compiled circa 500 B.C.). caïcalatä is a state of random thinking (Bhagavadgītā, Chapter VI, Verse 34).[6] The second state is ekāgratā, during which the attention is directed to a series of associated thoughts (Bhagavadgītā, Chapter VI, Verse 12).[6] Hence, ekāgratā is a state of focusing without meditation.

A study compared the performance in a cancellation task in 70 normal healthy male volunteers at the beginning and end of the four types of sessions (20 minutes each on four separate days, in a random order), namely caïcalatä, ekāgratā, dhāranā and dhyāna.[7] The results showed that scores in the cancellation task improved after dhāraā. The letter cancellation task assesses selective attention and concentration.[8] It was interesting to note that meditative focusing improved selective attention whereas focusing without meditation did not show such an effect.

The present study was designed to determine the effects of ekāgratā (focusing without meditation) and dhāranā (meditative focusing) practiced on two separate days using two different tests used to assess attention, i.e., (i) d2 test of attention and (ii) digit symbol substitution test.

  Materials and Methods Top


Sixty male volunteers with ages ranging from 17 to 38 years (group mean age ± S.D., 24.87 ± 4.95 months) were recruited for the study. They were all students of a yoga university in Southern India. Their health status was evaluated by a routine case history and clinical examination. They had normal health and were not on any medication. The conditions to exclude participants from the study were chronic illnesses, particularly psychiatric or neurological disorders, cognitive disorders, and visual deformities. Male volunteers alone were selected as the mental state of female volunteers is known to vary with the phases of the menstrual cycle.[9] All participants had been practicing meditation on the Sanskrit syllable, Om for 30 minutes each day, 5 days in a week (group average experience ± SD; 14.83 ± 8.63 months). Apart from their prior experience of meditation on Om, they were given a 3 month orientation program to practice dhāraā under the guidance of an experienced meditation teacher. The project was approved by the institution's ethics committee. The study protocol was explained to the subjects and their signed consent was obtained.


Each participant was assessed in two sessions on separate days. These two sessions were dhāranā and ekāgratā. Half of the total participants were randomly allocated to dhāranā session first and ekāgratā session later and the other half had the order reversed. Assessments were done before and after the practice of dhāraā and ekāgratā sessions. After 1 week (as a wash-out period), the order of the sessions was reversed and assessments were done before and after the sessions. Participants who did dhāranā first, practiced ekāgratā subsequently and vice versa. This 1 week gap was given to wash out any possible learning effect. The time of the day for assessment was kept constant for both sessions. Both sessions were of 20 minutes in duration.


d2 test of attention

The d2 test is a timed test of selective attention and concentration.[10] The one page test form provides sections for recording data about the subject, test scores, and has a practice sample. On the reverse side is the standardized test, consisting of 14 lines, each comprised of 47 characters for a total of 658 items. The test items are composed of the characters “d” and “p” with one to four dashes, arranged either individually or in pairs above and below the letter. The subject is required to scan across each line to identify and cross out all “d's” with two dashes. The subject is allowed 20 seconds per line. The d2 test of attention has shown a high level of reliability and of validity.[10] The reliability was tested on different scoring indices and with a variety of methods. The internal stability of test indices, TN, TN-E, and CP proved to be very high (r > 0.90). Reliability coefficients of E% are expected to be somewhat lower. The stability of E% is less affected in test-retest experiments, and thus can be improved with re-testing. In a series of test-retests, and intervals of up to 40 months, d2 test indices TN, TN-E, and CP demonstrated satisfactory to good reliability (r > 0.70). The validity of the test is documented by a large volume of research.[10]

Digit symbol substitution test

The digit symbol substitution test is a subset of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-Revised (WAISR) administered using paper and pencil.[11] It measures sustained attention, response speed, and visuo-motor coordination. The participant is given a key grid of numbers and matching symbols and a test section with numbers and empty boxes. The test consists of filling in as many empty boxes as possible with a symbol matching each number. Ninety seconds were given to complete the task. The score was computed as the number of correctly substituted symbols within the 90-s time limit. To avoid re-test effect parallel worksheets were prepared by changing the digit-symbol pairs in the key and by randomly changing the sequence of digits in the working section. This test has demonstrated high test-retest reliability.[12] Test-retest reliability tends to run high, with correlation coefficients in 0.82 to 0.88 range.[12]


Participants were given a three month training to practice dhāranā based on specific instructions under the guidance of an experienced meditation teacher who had no other part in the trial. The evaluation of the participants' practice of dhāranā was based on their self-report as well as consultations with the meditation teacher. Participants were not given special training to practice ekāgratā. This was because ekāgratā is a non-meditative focusing which is easy to practice and hence does not require any special training.

Brief descriptions of both sessions are given below:

(i) Ekāgratā (Focusing without meditation)

Participants listened to a pre-recorded lecture on meditation. This was not about meditation on the Sanskrit syllable Om, but about meditation in general. It was speculated that listening to a lecture on a particular topic might induce the state of non-meditative focusing.

(ii) Dhāranā (Meditative focusing)

Participants were asked to open their eyes and gaze at the syllable “Om” as it is written in Sanskrit for 30 seconds. Followed by this, participants were asked to close their eyes and audio instructions for dhāranā were played. The meditative focusing on the Sanskrit syllable Om consisted of mental visualization of the symbol Om. Dhāranā involves conscious effort to keep the focus on the syllable “Om”.

Data analysis

Statistical analysis was done using SPSS (Version 19.0). Since the same individuals were assessed in repeat sessions on separate days (i.e. ekāgratā and dhāranā), repeated measures analysis of variance was used (ANOVA). Repeated measures analysis of variance (ANOVA) were performed with two “within subjects” factors, i.e. Factor 1: Sessions; ekāgratā and dhāraā and Factor 2: States; “Pre”, and “Post”. This was followed by a post-hoc analysis with Bonferroni adjustment comparing “pre” with “post” values.

  Results Top

The group mean and standard deviation for scores obtained in the d2 test of attention and digit symbol substitution test are presented in [Table 1].
Table 1

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Repeated measures analysis of variance

Two-way repeated measures ANOVA were conducted where subjects were measured before and after dhāranā as well as ekāgratā. There was a significant difference between States for all measures of the d2 test of attention (i) Total Number processed (TN) F (1, 59) = 79.13, P < 0.001; (ii) Errors (E) F (1, 59) = 26.69, P < 0.001; (iii) TN-E F (1, 59) = 161.88, P < 0.001; (iv) E% F (1, 59) = 59.14, P < 0.001; (v) Concentration Performance (CP) F (1, 59) = 201.43, P < 0.001. Scores on the digit symbol substitution test showed a significant difference between the Sessions F (1, 59) = 14.86, P < 0.001 and States F (1, 59) = 40.43, P < 0.001. There was also a significant interaction between Sessions and States F (1, 59) = 11.13, P < 0.01.

Post hoc analyses with Bonferroni adjustment

There was a significant increase in the total number processed (TN), TN - E, and concentration performance (CP) after ekāgratā as well as dhāranā (P < 0.001, post hoc analyses following ANOVA). There was a significant decrease in errors (E) after ekāgratā ((P < 0.01) and dhāraā (P < 0.001). And also, there was a significant decrease in E% after ekāgratā (P < 0.001) and dhāranā (P < 0.001). Digit symbol substitution test scores showed a significant increase after dhāranā (P < 0.001) while ekāgratā showed no change.

  Discussion Top

In the present study, 60 male volunteers with experience in meditation were assessed in the d2 test of attention and digit symbol substitution test after dhāranā (meditative focusing) and ekāgratā (focusing without meditation).

The digit symbol substitution test is used to assess perceptual-motor speed during copying, visual scanning, and incidental learning.[13],[14] The d2 test of attention is essentially a cancellation task, which measures selective attention and concentration.[10],[15] After both types of focusing there was a significant improvement in all measures of the d2 test of attention (TN, E, TN-E, E%, and CP). However, the performance in the digit symbol substitution test was better after dhāraā but did not change after ekāgratā.

The main difference between two tests is that the digit symbol substitution test has a component of incidental learning. It is possible that incidental learning improves after dhāraā due to greater relaxation which may not occur after ekāgratā. Learning and memory are closely related to relaxation.[16] A previous study showed that 23 minutes of a “moving meditation” called cyclic meditation (CM) improved primary working memory.[17] The improvement was attributed to better relaxation following cyclic meditation. The same reason may be the basis for the results in the present study though this is just a speculation as it was not actually studied by objective variables.

With respect to the d2 test of attention, following both ekāgratā and dhāranā, there was a comparable improvement, particularly in the (i) total number processed (TN), (ii) TN-E, and (iii) concentration performance (CP).

The total number processed is a reliable measure of attention allocation, processing speed, amount of work completed, and motivation.[10] When the errors are subtracted from total number (TN-E), the value is a measure of attentional and inhibitory control, and the relationship of speed and accuracy of performance.[10] Concentration performance (CP) is derived from the number of correctly crossed out relevant items minus the errors of commission or over-inclusion when irrelevant letters are crossed out. This is good indicator of the coordination of speed and accuracy of performance.[10] Despite the fact that concentration performance (CP) appeared comparably improved after ekāgratā and dhāraā, the reduction in errors was more after dhāraā (26.48%) compared to ekāgratā (15.44%).

Errors (E) include both errors of omission (E1) or under-inclusion and errors of commission (E2) or over-inclusion. The number of errors is sensitive to attentional control, rule compliance, accuracy of visual scanning, carefulness, and cognitive flexibility. Perhaps the only difference between the two states (dhāranā and ekāgratā) with respect to the d2 test could be related to the accuracy of visual scanning and cognitive flexibility. Though even this is difficult to conclude, the given comparable scores in concentration performance (CP) after dhāranā (21.14%) and ekāgratā (18.06%).

The findings did not reveal noticeable difference between dhāranā and ekāgratā except in the digit symbol substitution test performance. This suggests that dhāranā and ekāgratā did not bring about marked differences in attention task performance. It would have been ideal to have a simultaneous assessment of the physiological measures to assess the level autonomic arousal during the two states. This is particularly of interest as attention is known to modulate sympathetic activation.[18] The other limitation of the study is that there was no assessment on third day when a participant was given no intervention.

In summary, dhāranā (meditative focusing) and ekāgratā (focusing without meditation) produce nearly comparable results though dhāranā results in better incidental learning and better accuracy (based on the digit symbol substitution test performance).

  References Top

1.Brown DP. A model for the levels of concentrative meditation. Int J Clin Exp Hypn 1977;25:236-73.  Back to cited text no. 1
2.Murata T, Takahashi T, Hamada T, Oṁori M, Kosaka H, Yoshida H, et al. Individual trait anxiety levels characterizing the properties of Zen meditation. Neuropsychobiology 2004;50:189-94.  Back to cited text no. 2
3.Lutz A, Slagter HA, Dunne JD, Davidson RJ. Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends Cogn Sci 2008;12:163-9.  Back to cited text no. 3
4.Travis F, Shear J. Focused attention, open monitoring and automatic self-transcending: Categories to organize meditations from Vedic, Buddhist and Chinese traditions. Conscious Cogn 2010;19:1110-8.  Back to cited text no. 4
5.Taimini IK. The Science of Yoga. Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House; 1986.  Back to cited text no. 5
6.Saraswati M, Swami G. Bhagavad Gita. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama; 1998.  Back to cited text no. 6
7.Kumar S, Telles S. Meditative states based on yoga texts and their effects on performance of a cancellation task. Percept Mot Skills 2009;109:679-89.  Back to cited text no. 7
8.Uttl B, Pilkenton-Taylor C. Letter cancellation performance across the adult life span. Clin Neuropsychol 2001;15:521-30.  Back to cited text no. 8
9.Little BC, Zahn TP. Changes in mood and autonomic functioning during the menstrual cycle. Psychophysiology 1974;11:579-90.  Back to cited text no. 9
10.Brickenkamp R, Zillmer E. The d2 test of attention. Seattle, WA: Hogrefe and Huber Publishers; 1998.  Back to cited text no. 10
11.Wechsler D. Manual for the Wechsler adult intelligence scale-revised. San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corporation; 1981.  Back to cited text no. 11
12.Matarazzo JD, Herman DO. Base rate data for the WAIS-R: Test-retest stability and VIQ-PIQ differences. J Clin Neuropsychol 1984;6:351-66.  Back to cited text no. 12
13.Joy S, Fein D, Kaplan E. Decoding digit symbol: Speed, memory, and visual scanning. Assessment 2003;10:56-65.  Back to cited text no. 13
14.Joy S, Kaplan E, Fein D. Speed and memory in the WAIS-III Digit Symbol-Coding subtest across the adult lifespan. Arch Clin Neuropsychol 2004;19:759-67.  Back to cited text no. 14
15.Rose JE, Behm FM, Salley AN, Bates JE, Coleman RE, Hawk TC, et al. Regional brain activity correlates of nicotine dependence. Neuropsychopharmacology 2007;32:2441-52.  Back to cited text no. 15
16.Nava E, Landau D, Brody S, Linder L, Schächinger H. Mental relaxation improves long-term incidental visual memory. Neurobiol Learn Mem 2004;81:167-71.  Back to cited text no. 16
17.Subramanya P, Telles S. Effect of two yoga-based relaxation techniques on memory scores and state anxiety. Biopsychosoc Med 2009;3:8-12.  Back to cited text no. 17
18.Moses ZB, Luecken LJ, Eason JC. Measuring task-related changes in heart rate variability. Conf Proc IEEE Eng Med Biol Soc 2007;2007:644-7.  Back to cited text no. 18


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