Mindfulness Might Create False Memories, New Study FInds

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You may have heard of a little thing called mindfulness, a meditation style that focuses on being aware and accepting of thoughts, feelings, and sensations you have in the present moment. Oprah loves it. Tech CEOs love it. It might make you less obese. It’ll probably make you less stressed. But it might also tamper with your memory, new research finds.

In one of the few pieces of evidence that suggests mindfulness is not the perfect solution to all problems, a study in the journal Psychological Science finds that the practice might make people more susceptible to false memories. The research found that people who were instructed to focus their attention on their breathing, a common mindfulness practice, were more likely to invent memories, perhaps because of that whole “judgment free” approach to thinking. Mindfulness “may also increase false-memory susceptibility by affecting the cognitive operations needed to distinguish between internal and external sources of information,” the experts wrote. 

The researchers, from the University of California, San Diego and the Royal Holloway, University of London conducted multiple experiments with more than 500 undergraduate students (most of them women). In one, participants saw a standard list of 15 words [PDF] appear on a computer screen one after the other, and had to write down as many as they could remember. Students who spent 15 minutes on a mindfulness exercise were more likely to misremember that they saw the word “trash” (the words they saw were related to garbage) than students who spent 15 minutes letting their minds just wander. 

In another test, a different group of students went through the same procedure with different sets of words, but between looking at a total of 12 such lists, they took a break to meditate. Those students were more likely to falsely recall words related to the lists after their meditation, while those who took a break just to let their minds wander didn’t show any change. 

“The essential idea of mindfulness meditation is to observe without judgment or reaction” whatever idea comes to mind, the researchers write, and thus people might not have much to draw on when it comes to remembering information, since they don’t have the cue of that reaction or judgment to help recall the situation. Thus, they have trouble distinguishing between external reality and inner thoughts. 

However, don’t worry too much about your meditation practice. Incorrectly remembering a few words you’ve seen in a list once is a lot easier than incorrectly remembering a life experience. 

[h/t: BPS Research Digest]