Researchers in the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, conducted the study to examine the dynamics between mindfulness and mind-wandering — or the tendency to let our minds drift away on ‘task-unrelated thoughts.’
“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.
The better the working memory — or an individual’s ability to hold chunks of information and also use them — the better students tend to perform on reading comprehension tests.
The research included 48 University of California undergraduates who were told it was a study designed to improve cognitive performance. Each student was evaluated for working memory capacity, mind-wandering and performance on a Graduate Record Examination (GRE) reading comprehension section.
Half of the volunteers were then 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 standard mindfulness-based stress reduction programs. Students met four days a week for two weeks and were not required to devote as much formal practice outside of class.
The mindfulness students received training in the practice of meditation — 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 two weeks, the students were re-evaluated for mind-wandering and working memory capacity and given another version of the reading comprehension test.
The group that took mindfulness training experienced less mind-wandering and performed better on tests of working memory capacity and reading comprehension. Before the training, their average GRE verbal score was 460. Two weeks later, it was 520.
The nutrition group’s results did not change.
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, offered this analogy: “You can improve the signal-to-noise ratio by reducing the noise. Decreasing mind-wandering is doing just that.”
Source: Psychological Science