Monday, January 12, 2015

A Downside to Mindfulness

Repost from January 2014

I write so much about the benefits of mindfulness that I have to fess up when I come across a study that reveals negative effects.  This hasn’t been too taxing because there are so few resources painting mindfulness as having any deleterious effects at all.  But recent research out of Georgetown University does just that.

It turns out that mindfulness can inhibit implicit learning and implicit memory.

First, some definitions.  Explicit learning requires a conscious awareness and intention to learn.  It’s an active process that involves problem solving and analysis.  Implicit learning, on the other hand, occurs without the intention to learn or without awareness of what has been learned.  Implicit learning happens unconsciously and automatically through conditioning and practice.  And implicit memory enables you to perform a task without conscious processing of how you are doing it.  Think riding a bike or shooting a basket.  Even learning language (conversationally and immersive, before grammar) falls into this category.

Through implicit learning and memory we develop habits.  So, on the plus side, if mindfulness negatively impacts implicit learning, it can help keep us from forming bad habits.  But memory is rarely selective, so mindfulness can keep us from learning good habits as well. 

In the research study people who scored high on a self-assessment of mindfulness learned automatic tasks that require little conscious processing more slowly and less successfully than people who reported themselves as less mindful.  It turns out that being very aware of present events and very conscious of one’s thinking processes can inhibit the mind from lying down and retaining tasks acquired through implicit means.  More mindful can mean less automatic, and therein lies the dilemma.

The interesting aspect of this study is the test of mindfulness that determines if a person is more or less mindful.  It is a self-assessment and deals with awareness, focus, and attention.  The research did not focus on meditators, nor does it specifically correlate any inhibition of memory with any particular meditative practice.   Of course, if mindfulness meditation moves one toward more mindfulness on the scale of this test, implicit learning and memory may be affected.  But meditation does not always have this effect.  I have been practicing for a dozen years and still score low on the mindfulness assessment.  Whether this stems from the symptoms of my bipolar disorder or years of self-absorption I don’t know.  At the same time, the illness, or the meds I take for it, or a long course of ect, or the fact that I’m not as smart as I think I am result in me having a pretty poor memory nonetheless.

So, while interesting, this study does not mean that meditation is going to screw with your memory.  While we always need to be on the lookout for negative effects of any practice we undertake, the positive aspects of using meditation as an adjunct therapy in treating mental illness are so large that I’m willing to table this study and stay on the cushion.  I may have to work more diligently at things that should be learned automatically (explicit and implicit learning are intertwined for many tasks), but I also may avoid the severe episodes of mania and mixed states that derailed me before I became a regular meditator.


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