Does your mind tend to wander? Do you have trouble concentrating? If the answer is yes, mindfulness training may help — and quickly.
In fact, researchers at the University of California – Santa Barbara believe that as little as two weeks of mindfulness training can significantly improve one’s reading comprehension, working memory capacity, and ability to focus.
The findings of the new study were recently published online in the journal Psychological Science.
“What surprised me the most was actually the clarity of the results,” said Michael Mrazek, graduate student researcher in psychology and the lead and corresponding author of the paper.
“Even with a rigorous design and effective training program, it wouldn’t be unusual to find mixed results. But we found reduced mind-wandering in every way we measured it.”
Mindfulness has been defined as purposely paying attention in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. However, much of our waking hours are anything but mindful.
Many people tend to ruminate or replay past events, or think ahead to future circumstances, such as plans for the weekend.
To investigate whether mindfulness training can reduce mind-wandering and thereby improve performance, researchers randomly assigned 48 undergraduate students to either a class that taught the practice of mindfulness or a class that covered fundamental topics in nutrition.
Both classes were taught by professionals with extensive teaching experience in their fields. Within a week before the classes, the students were given two tests: a modified verbal reasoning test from the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) and a working memory capacity (WMC) test. Mind-wandering during both tests was also measured.
The mindfulness classes provided a conceptual introduction along with practical instruction on how to practice mindfulness in both targeted exercises and daily life. Meanwhile, the nutrition class taught nutrition science and strategies for healthy eating, and required students to log their daily food intake.
Within a week after the classes ended, the students were tested again. Their scores indicated that the mindfulness group significantly improved on both the verbal GRE test and the working memory capacity test. They also mind-wandered less during testing. None of these changes were true of the nutrition group.
“This is the most complete and rigorous demonstration that mindfulness can reduce mind-wandering, one of the clearest demonstrations that mindfulness can improve working memory and reading, and the first study to tie all this together to show that mind-wandering mediates the improvements in performance,” said Mrazek.
He added that the research establishes with greater certainty that some cognitive abilities often seen as immutable, such as working memory capacity, can be improved through mindfulness training.
New studies will investigate whether similar results can be achieved with younger populations, or with web-based mindfulness interventions.
Researchers are also examining whether or not the benefits of mindfulness can be compounded by a program of personal development that also targets nutrition, exercise, sleep, and personal relationships.