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Photo of Bruce O'Hara and studentsBruce O’Hara, associate professor of biology, with graduate students Prashant Kaul and Ling Liu, found that to enhance mental acuity meditation is more effective than a power nap.

Meditate on This New Finding

Anybody who practices the ancient art of meditation will tell you it helps them feel more relaxed and attentive. But does it also enhance performance?

Bruce O’Hara, an associate professor of biology at the University of Kentucky, and graduate student Prashant Kaul wanted to find out, so they devised a study to see how meditation might affect the ability to do a boring task during the mid-afternoon, a time when attention often flags. O’Hara and Kaul used a “psychomotor vigilance task,” which has long been used to quantify the effects of sleepiness on mental acuity. The test involves staring at a computer screen and pressing a button as soon as a lighted image pops up.

Typically, people take 200 to 300 milliseconds to respond, but sleep-deprived people take much longer, and sometimes miss the stimulus altogether. Ten UK students were tested before and after 40 minutes of either sleep, meditation, reading, or light conversation, with all subjects trying all conditions.

The results surprised O’Hara. “We found that meditation was the only intervention that immediately led to superior performance, even though none of the volunteers were experienced at meditation. Every single student who meditated showed improvement,” says O’Hara. But, he admits, “Why it improves performance, we don’t know.”

But what about the heralded power nap? Didn’t it fare at least as well as meditation?

“No, everybody got worse with a nap,” says O’Hara, “because we had the volunteers start the test immediately after they woke up. A 40-minute nap does tend to improve performance, but only after an hour or so to recover from grogginess.”—Jeff Worley

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