“In a fascinating review of the cognitive neuroscience of attention, authors Raz and Buhle note that most research on attention focuses on defining situations in which it is no longer required to perform a task – in other words, the automatization of thought and behavior. Yet relatively few studies focus on whether thought and behavior can be de-automatized – or, as I might call it if I were asking for trouble, deprogrammed.
What would count as deprogramming? For example, consider the Stroop task, where subjects must name the ink color of each word in a list of color words (e.g., “red” might be written in blue ink, and the task is to say “blue” while suppressing the urge to automatically read the word “red”). Reaction time is reliably increased when subjects name the ink color of incongruent words (“red” written in blue ink) relative to congruent words (“red” written in red ink), presumably because the subjects need to inhibit their prepotent tendency to read the words. But is it possible to regain control over our automatized processes – in this case, reading – and hence name the ink color of incongruent words as quickly as we would name the ink color of congruent or even non-words?
Some meditative practices purport to reverse automatization of thought and behavior, such as transcendental or mindfulness meditation, and indeed there is some evidence that these techniques can reduce interference on the Stroop task. For example, in a study by Alexander, Langer, Newman, Chandler, and Davies from the Journal of Personality and Social psychology, 73 elderly participants were randomly assigned to either no treatment, a transcendental meditation program, mindfulness training, or relaxation training. Note that transcendental and mindfulness techniques are frequently described as inducing a state of “pure consciousness” during which the mind is “silent,” and yet not empty: in this state, meditators claim to be intensely aware only of awareness itself. Less cryptically, this state is also referred to as “restful alertness.”