Any student has experienced that moment in class when he cannot for the life of him recall what the professor has just said seconds before. Whether it was because he was distracted watching a gnat fly around the light overhead or because his furiously working writing hand wasn't taking notes quite quickly enough to keep up with the lecture, there are always a few intervals which we miss in our daily lives, because our brains lack adequate attentional resources - unless you happen to be an expert in Buddhist meditation, that is. Among its various purported benefits, which include changes in metabolism and blood pressure, meditation also has been shown to result in altered brain structure and function. In other words, meditation induces neuroplasticity. In much the same way that one can obtain expert proficiency in a foreign language, mental training via meditation can result in increased information processing capacity in the brain.
Meditation is used by an increasing percentage of people to promote relaxation and a heightened sense of well-being. In a study published by the IEEE Signal Processing Society, researchers showed that meditation also leads to increased levels of concentration and reduced attention blink, as well as resulting in enhanced cortical area, in a manner similar to other forms of skill acquisition. The study made the distinction between two types of meditation - Focused Attention (FA) meditation and Open Monitoring (OM) meditation. Utilizing fMRI to measure hemodynamic changes in various areas of the brain, FA meditation was shown to be correlated with activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex; the visual cortex; and the superior frontal sulcus, supplementary motor area and intraparietal sulcus. These areas are associated with our ability for monitoring, engaging attention and attentional orienting, respectively. When an individual meditates regularly and becomes an "expert", the cortical area of these regions in the brain increases. This would seem to indicate that attention is a trainable skill.
In addition to being able to pay focused, long-term attention to a chosen object, meditation experts were also shown in the study to undergo less activation in their amygdalas in response to emotional stimuli. This would seem to imply that emotional behaviors are not compatible with a stable state of advanced level concentration, and also that our emotional state can be consciously controlled, to some extent.
The implications of attention as a trainable skill appear to be numerous. For example, let us consider Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). It would seem that individuals who suffer from a seeming lack of ability to focus for prolonged periods of time might benefit from practicing meditative techniques, where the mind is calm and focused for prolonged periods of time. In addition, the general population might also benefit from the ability to reduce "neural noise" and thus pick up more information from the environment more quickly, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the constant data input. For students, their ability to focus in class and process more information more efficiently could have considerable impact on their learning. Many aspects of the impact of meditation on the human brain are as yet still unknown, but it would appear that it has profound effects on attention learning through the creation of novel synaptic connections, in addition to its role in promoting cultivation of general mental and emotional health.