Mindfulness may make memories less accurate

September 9, 2015
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 : 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 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 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.

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 that create countless benefits can also have the unintended negative consequence of increasing false-memory susceptibility," Wilson and colleagues conclude.

Explore further: Only 25 minutes of mindfulness meditation alleviates stress

More information: Psychological Science, pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/09/03/0956797615593705.abstract

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5 comments

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Dug
5 / 5 (1) Sep 09, 2015
This touches on the "suggestion" that creates false memories. Since most mindfulness exercises don't involve any suggestion inputs, the experiment seems a little biased and and poorly designed and its conclusions totally unproven.
RobertKarlStonjek
1 / 5 (1) Sep 10, 2015
The problem with these kinds of experiments is that the effect measured is assumed to indicate a change in the baseline although this is not actually measured. The response immediately after meditating or playing a violent video game or eating may have the opposite, same or no effect on the baseline.

For instance 5 minutes of rapid exercise causes the heart rate and breathing to increase and a feeling of fatigue follows. Should we then conclude that people who exercise have a faster heart beat and more rapid breathing? We know, because this has been extensively studied, that long term the baseline heart rate drops for those who exercise regularly even though if the experiment were done under the same conditions as this one the heart rate rises.

Meditation is exercise for various parts of the brain.
KBK
not rated yet Sep 10, 2015
The experiment and conclusions are straightforwardly stated.

However, to conclude that 'memories are falsified' ~outside of the very limited experimentation going on~, is the more serious fault, here, with regard to the implied and conclusional aspects of the article.

Of course psychiatry would move to saying, as a projected subtext: "we are the experts on YOU, and if YOU work on yourself in a given thousands of years old perfected methodology, you are messing around in our shitty little uninformed psychiatry pool! Don't ever work on yourself --we are the experts here!"

OTOH, it can be a case of broadcasting a simple warning from an experiment, as a result... that conflation is a norm in self generated mental work. Which people working on themselves should find a way to become aware of.

The trick is to be aware of anyone trying to twist the results - for turning people away from self work and trusting big pharma instead.

six of one, half dozen of the other.
Nancy59
not rated yet Sep 10, 2015
I read the article and according to it the participants assigned to the "mindfulness" condition were instructed to focus attention on their breathing and the control-condition participants were asked to "think about whatever came to mind." These two conditions sound like a comparison between "focused attention meditation" and "open monitoring meditation," especially considering that the latter condition was also based on a script.
In other words, they are comparing two different meditation practices, both of which fall under "mindfulness training."
Nancy59
not rated yet Sep 10, 2015
Continuing on my earlier comment: Focusing on one's breathing is a difficult meditation for someone doing it for the first time, especially if it is not clearly explained (explanations can take hours). Also, when meditating for the very first time, focusing on the breath and doing it improperly can cause stress and this in turn could affect their immediate test scoring, perhaps on anything.
Many research studies have shown that training in mindfulness is beneficial for memory and that these practices also produce changes in gray matter concentrations in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes.

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