by Althea Need Kaminske
It’s the time of year when the days are getting shorter and, in the case of some of my students, so are attention spans. I was therefore intrigued by a research article describing how students can improve their focus, and reduce their mind-wandering, through a somewhat unconventional approach: taking a two week mindfulness course (1).
Mrazek and colleagues randomly assigned undergraduate students to either take a two week course on mindfulness training or a two week course on nutrition. It is important to note that students were under the impression that they were being assigned to two equally effective programs to improve cognitive performance. Furthermore, the assignment to either mindfulness or the nutrition course was random. Therefore students could not self-select to be in one or the other, nor could they infer which program was the experimental program and therefore be more motivated in one course versus the other (a placebo effect).
Before starting their two week course, all students took a pre-test that consisted of several measures: a reading comprehension test, a measure of working memory capacity, and a few measures of mind-wandering. At pre-test there were no differences between the groups of students.
After their two week course in either mindfulness or nutrition, students took a post-test on all the same measures. At post test, however, there were significant differences between the two groups. The students who had practiced mindfulness not only improved their reading comprehension, they also improved their working memory capacity and reduced their mind-wandering!
These results are fairly surprising given that students only took a two week course. Previous research has found differences in attentional neural-networks between long-time practitioners of meditation and non-mediators (2, 3). The class in this study met for 45 minutes four times a week and required students to practice 10 minutes of daily meditation outside of class. The class also gave concrete instructions on how to meditate and approach mindfulness (i.e. how to sit, what to do when a distracting thought happens, etc.) that most likely contributed to the success of the class.
From a cognitive psychologist’s point of view, these results are particularly impressive because they demonstrate transfer. There are a number of training tools that are marketed as improving mental processes. While a number of these show improvement on the training task itself, very few show improvement on things outside of the task (4). In other words: if you do a sudoku puzzle every day you’ll get very good at sudoku, but nothing else. In contrast, several studies have shown that meditation and mindfulness training have shown improvement on attention tasks that are very different from the training task (1, 5).
So should every student get training in mindfulness? Maybe! I think it’s important to note that the mindfulness training in this experiment followed a pretty structured regimen. The researchers also noted that the classes were taught by professionals. Therefore it is important to carefully evaluate any program that claims to improve cognitive performance to make sure it isn’t just a bunch of hocus focus.
(1) Mrazek, M. D., Franklin, M. S., Phillips, D. T., Baird, B., & Schooler, J. W. (2013). Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering. Psychological Science, 24(5), 776–781. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612459659
(2) Brefczynski-Lewis, J. A., Lutz, A., Schaefer, H. S., Levinson, D. B., Davidson, R. J. (2007). Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 104, 11483–11488. doi:10.1073/pnas.0606552104
(3) Chambers, R., Lo, B. C. Y., Allen, N. B. (2008). The impact of intensive mindfulness training on attentional control, cognitive style, and affect. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32, 303–322.
(4) Sala, G., & Gobet, F. (2017). Does far transfer exist? Negative evidence from chess, music, and working memory training. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Online First Publication. DOI: 10.1177/0963721417712760
(5) Hodgins, H. S., & Adair, K. C. (2010). Attentional processes and meditation. Consciousness and Cognition, 19(4), 872-878. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2010.04.002