Recently, I developed an interest in mindfulness meditation. This was due primarily to my mom, who took up the practice and now doesn't go a day without meditating (Hi mom!). As a stressed-out graduate student, I decided to give it a shot as well. In addition to any positive effects meditation may have on psychological well-being, I began to wonder about its cognitive benefits. The idea of mindfulness is to focus on one thing at a time, so I thought maybe it would help me focus and subsequently retain more information from the countless textbook chapters and journal articles we are assigned to read.
I decided to research the idea and found a literature review summarizing the research on the neuropsychological effects of mindfulness meditation practice (Chiesa, Calati, & Serretti, 2011). The researchers included in the review 23 studies examining the relationship between mindfulness meditation and domains of cognitive functioning including attention, working memory, and executive functioning.
About half of the studies examining aspects of attention (i.e., selective, sustained, and attention switching) found that meditators performed significantly better than non-meditators on tasks. The majority of studies finding positive results were case-control designs, while the prospective studies were more likely to find null results. In terms of memory, mindfulness meditation did result in improvements in working memory capacity but not general memory. The review findings also indicated that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy may increase verbal fluency (our ability to produce words).
The review found somewhat conflicting results, as some studies found significant neuropsychological benefits of meditation, while others did not. One thing that was clear, however, was that the majority of the studies in the review that did show significant results involved either retreats of long duration or highly experienced meditators. This highlights the importance of being persistent when it comes to meditation. Although there are still many questions to answer regarding the neurocognitive benefits of the practice, it appears that, as with most things, results will only come with putting a significant amount of time into the activity. Maybe with some practice, I'll finally be able to focus on that chapter on Classical Test Theory (or not).
Chiesa, A., Calati, R., Serretti, A. (2011). Does mindfulness training improve cognitive abilities? A systematic review of neuropsychological findings. Clinical Psychology Review, 31, 449-464.