Mindfulness May Make Memories Less Accurate

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.

In the second experiment, 140 participants completed a baseline recall task before undergoing the guided exercise. This experiment showed that participants were more likely to falsely recall the critical word after mindfulness meditation than before; in other words, mindfulness increased rates of false recall.

This shows a person meditating.
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. Image adapted from the Association for Psychological Science press release.

Again, mindfulness participants were more likely to falsely recall the critical word than those who engaged in mind wandering, even after the researchers took baseline recall performance into account.

In the third experiment, 215 undergraduate participants had to determine whether a word had been presented earlier – some words had, while others merely related to words that had been presented.

Participants who engaged in mindfulness and those who hadn’t were both highly accurate in recognizing the words they had actually seen. However, participants were more likely to falsely identify related words after completing the mindfulness exercise.

Together, the findings suggest that mindfulness might hamper the cognitive processes that contribute to accurately identifying the source of a memory. After mindfulness training, memories of imagined experiences become more like memories of actual experiences, and people have more difficulty deciding if experiences were real or only imagined.

“As a result, the same aspects of mindfulness that create countless benefits can also have the unintended negative consequence of increasing false-memory susceptibility,” Wilson and colleagues conclude.

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Co-authors on the research include Laura Mickes of Royal Holloway, University of London; and Stephanie Stolarz-Fantino, Matthew Evrard, and Edmund Fantino of the University of California, San Diego.

Source: Brent M. Wilson – UCSD/Association for Psychological Science
Image Credit: The image is adapted from the Association for Psychological Science press release
Original Research: Abstract for “Increased False-Memory Susceptibility After Mindfulness Meditation” by Brent M. Wilson, Laura Mickes, Stephanie Stolarz-Fantino, Matthew Evrard, and Edmund Fantino in Psychological Science. Published online September 4 2015 doi:10.1177/0956797615593705


Abstract

Increased False-Memory Susceptibility After Mindfulness Meditation

The effect of mindfulness meditation on false-memory susceptibility was examined in three experiments. Because mindfulness meditation encourages judgment-free thoughts and feelings, we predicted that participants in the mindfulness condition would be especially likely to form false memories. In two experiments, participants were randomly assigned to either a mindfulness induction, in which they were instructed to focus attention on their breathing, or a mind-wandering induction, in which they were instructed to think about whatever came to mind. The overall number of words from the Deese-Roediger-McDermott paradigm that were correctly recalled did not differ between conditions. However, participants in the mindfulness condition were significantly more likely to report critical nonstudied items than participants in the control condition. In a third experiment, which tested recognition and used a reality-monitoring paradigm, participants had reduced reality-monitoring accuracy after completing the mindfulness induction. These results demonstrate a potential unintended consequence of mindfulness meditation in which memories become less reliable.

“Increased False-Memory Susceptibility After Mindfulness Meditation” by Brent M. Wilson, Laura Mickes, Stephanie Stolarz-Fantino, Matthew Evrard, and Edmund Fantino in Psychological Science. Published online September 4 2015 doi:10.1177/0956797615593705

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  1. I have been involved in health-related research for many years. I had a look at this study cited in this article, where individuals who have never meditated in their lives were supposed to be “induced” into mindfulness (in just 15 min!). However, the researchers never assessed (using mindfulness scales) to see if mindfulness was actually induced in this group, but carried out various tests in this group, and then came up with conclusions that they attributed to mindfulness. This is like asking a group of inactive people to run a marathon and then labelling them as “fitness-induced” group without even assessing their fitness level – then doing various tests and attributing any results to their fitness level (we know that fitness cannot be achieved by running one marathon just like mindfulness cannot be gained by one sitting).
    Wondering how this study got published… ?
    Also, many studies have shown that training in mindfulness is beneficial for memory and additionally, these practices produce changes in gray matter concentrations in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes (for a couple of examples, see: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/03/27/0956797612459659.abstract and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21071182 )

  2. Firstly, these studies might also serve to validate the efficacy of mindful meditation in promoting desired changes in one’s life, habits, behaviors, etc. For example, if one enters a deep meditative state and recalls or imagines oneself acting in more compassionate ways, this study appears to support the theory that one will internalize oneself as actually being more compassionate. We are suggesting something to the brain, and the meditative state makes us more susceptible to believing it. Wouldn’t it follow that this exercise would create new neural pathways in the brain that facilitates adopting this new way of being/behaving as “second nature”?

    Secondly, I also wonder if there is not a “halo time” around the mindfulness state that is brought about by meditation. In other words, how soon before or after the meditation were the suggestions made and the exercises run, and how much of a difference does that make? Would the subjects have produced more accurate results if re-tested at different times before or after the experiment? How temporary or permanent are these new beliefs and what is the effect of repetition on subsequent days/weeks? These are not criticisms of the fascinating study, just follow on questions.

  3. It is possible that the attention directed at the outside world, switched to the inner world of man, thus making a person less alert. But there is an advantage. The world around us is no longer annoying.

  4. Maybe because the meditating subjects had their minds intensely focused in the interim period, while the “controls” were free to free-associate, possibly allowing better consolidation of the memories. A more accurate control would have the “control” group focusing on some other mental task.

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