Friday, September 18, 2015


‘The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels: it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant.Salvador Dalí.

Well, can it? Read on.

There are so many scientific studies attesting to the benefits---especially the health benefits---of the practice of mindfulness meditation that when you are confronted with the occasional study that suggests otherwise it gives you cause to reflect.

A new study 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.’

Wilson and colleagues wondered whether the very mechanism that seems to underlie the benefits of mindfulness---choiceless awareness (that is, judgment-free thoughts, feelings, sensations and images)---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 omelette for breakfast. But other memories originate from an internal source, such as imagining the experience of eating an omelet for breakfast.

Image source: Pinterest. All rights reserved.

‘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 (for example, 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 per cent of the mindfulness participants falsely recalled seeing the word ‘trash’ on the list compared to only 20 per cent 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 mindfulness that create countless benefits can also have the unintended negative consequence of increasing false-memory susceptibility,’ Wilson and colleagues concluded.

What is one to make of this study? Let me mention just a couple of misgivings I have with the study and its findings and conclusions.

First, the results of the study do not sit well with the findings and conclusions of numerous previous studies which have shown that the regular practice of mindfulness meditation is beneficial for memory and additionally produces changes in grey matter concentrations in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes.

Secondly, the participants in the study were undergraduate students whose mindfulness experience (in this case, mindfulness of the breath) was very limited and of short duration. If that kind of meditation, or any kind for that matter, is not done properly or without some prior sustained practice there can easily arise stress which could well detrimentally affect test results. Thirdly, participants in the control group were asked to think about whatever came to mind (‘mind-wandering induction’) and they followed an audio script. Because they followed an audio script these participants arguably would be much more likely to have been choicelessly aware of their thoughts and images than the minfulness participants. So, the conclusions reached by the study authors are, in my respectful submission, somewhat dubious.

Study: Wilson, Brent M et al. ‘Increased false-memory susceptibility after mindfulness meditation’. Psychological Science, doi: 10.1177/0956797615593705, published online 4 September 2015, abstract.

Story source. This post is reprinted from materials provided by the Association for Psychological Science.  

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