Monday, April 8, 2013


The question is---can mindfulness improve test scores?

Researchers in the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who have been studying the relationship between mindfulness and mind-wandering, or the tendency to let our minds drift away on ‘task-unrelated thoughts,’ as it is referred to in academic literature, sought to find out.

‘We had already found that mind-wandering underlies performance on a variety of tests, including working memory capacity and intelligence,’ said Michael D Mrazek, a graduate student working with Jonathan W Schooler, a professor of psychology at the university who studies the impacts and implications of mind-wandering and mindfulness. The higher the working memory, or an individual’s ability to keep in mind chunks of information and also use them, the better students tend to perform on reading comprehension tests.

Researchers disagree about the extent to which an individual’s working memory capacity can be enhanced. But in a study published last month in the journal Psychological Science, the Santa Barbara researchers found that after a group of undergraduates went through a 2-week intensive mindfulness training program, their mind-wandering decreased and their working memory capacity improved. They also performed better on a reading comprehension test---a section from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).

For the study, the researchers enrolled 48 University of California undergraduates in a study intended, they were told, to improve cognitive performance. Each student was evaluated for working memory capacity, mind-wandering and performance on a GRE reading comprehension section. Then, half the group was randomly assigned to take part in a nutrition program, in which they were educated about healthy eating and asked to keep a daily food diary.

The others took a training that resembled the standard mindfulness-based stress reduction program, which typically meets once a week for 8 sessions. In the Santa Barbara regimen, students instead met 4 days a week for 2 weeks and were not required to devote as much formal practice outside of class. But in the main, the class invoked the secular pillars of the practice, including sitting in an upright posture with legs crossed and gaze lowered, breathing exercises and ‘minimizing the distracting quality of past and future concerns by reframing them as mental projections occurring in the present.’

After 2 weeks, the students were re-evaluated for mind-wandering and working memory capacity and given another version of the GRE reading comprehension section.

Now, the results. The nutrition group’s results did not change. However, as respects the group that took mindfulness training, their minds wandered less and they performed better on tests of working memory capacity and reading comprehension. For example, before the training, their average GRE verbal score was 460. Two weeks later, it was 520.

The results of the study suggest that cultivating mindfulness is an effective and efficient technique for improving cognitive function, with wide-reaching consequences.

Now, here’s the rub. Professor Richard J Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has studied brain function in long-term and novice mindful meditators, as well as Buddhist monks who have practiced meditation for 34,000 hours over the course of their lives, said, ‘If you have people who are out of shape and then do two weeks of physical exercise, you’ll see some benefit. But if they stop exercising, the benefits won’t persist.’

In other words, unless you keep it up, the benefits will be short-lived.

Resource: Mrazek, M D, Franklin, M S, Phillips, D T, Baird, B, and Schooler, J W. ‘Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering’, Psychological Science, March 28, 2013. 10.1177/0956797612459659

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