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Mindfulness May Make Memories Less Accurate

From Medical Xpress

Mindfulness meditation is associated with all sorts of benefits to mental and physical well-being, but a new study suggests that it may also come with a particular downside for memory. The findings, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, show that participants who engaged in a 15-minute mindfulness meditation session were less able to differentiate items they actually encountered from items they only imagined.

“Our results highlight an unintended consequence of mindfulness meditation: memories may be less accurate,” says psychology doctoral candidate Brent M. Wilson of the University of California, San Diego, first author on the study. “This is especially interesting given that previous research has primarily focused on the beneficial aspects of mindfulness training and mindfulness-based interventions.”

The concept of mindfulness is pervasive in both academic research and popular culture. Numerous studies have reported benefits of mindfulness-based interventions for physical and psychological disorders, and celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Arianna Huffington have publicly extolled the merits of being mindful.

Wilson and colleagues wondered whether the very mechanism that seems to underlie the benefits of mindfulness – judgment-free thoughts and feelings – might also affect people’s ability to determine the origin of a given memory. Some memories originate from an external source, such as an actual experience of eating an omelet for breakfast. But other memories originate from an internal source, such as imagining the experience of eating an omelet for breakfast.

“When memories of imagined and real experiences too closely resemble each other, people can have difficulty determining which is which, and this can lead to falsely remembering imagined experiences as actual experiences,” Wilson explains.

To examine whether mindfulness might lead to confusion regarding the source of a memory, the researchers conducted a series of three experiments.

In the first two experiments, undergraduate participants were randomly assigned to undergo a particular 15-minute guided exercise: Participants in the mindfulness group were instructed to focus attention on their breathing without judgment, while those in the mind-wandering group were told to think about whatever came to mind.

After the guided exercise in the first experiment, 153 participants studied a list of 15 words related to the concept of trash (e.g., garbage, waste, can, refuse, sewage, rubbish, etc.) – importantly, the list did not actually include the critical word “trash.” Participants were then asked to recall as many of the words from the list as they could remember.

The results revealed that 39% of the mindfulness participants falsely recalled seeing the word “trash” on the list compared to only 20% of the mind-wandering participants.

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3 thoughts on “Mindfulness May Make Memories Less Accurate”

  1. This study seems absurd (disclaimer: haven’t read the original article yet). First of all, these are novice meditators. Second, what’s really being measured here, imagined vs real memories or mental fatigue? Novice meditators discover how hard it is to maintain concentration on the breath. A lot of cognitive resources will be devoted to this task, leaving fewer to focus on recall. They need to bring a neuroscientist with an fMRI into this study to help them figure out what’s really going on. It’s getting sexy to malign the efficacy of mindfulness by extrapolating from very narrow studies.

    1. True, Mike. On the other hand, it’s been sexy for a while to overhype the efficacy of mindfulness by extrapolating from very narrow studies. I take your point, though. I feel like it’s important to reprint some science articles here, both on the positive and negative viewpoint. Your mileage may vary.

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