Effects of Mindfulness on Attention and Memory

by Michael Dubois

Mindfulness refers to the deliberate attendance to present experiences in an accepting and non­ judgemental way. Although the clinical benefits of mindfulness are wide-ranging and fairly well established, the current body of literature is inconclusive on what effects, if any, mindfulness has on general cognitive processes. In particular, attention regulation and explicit memory are topics that have been subjected to few rigorously controlled experiments, often producing inconclusive results. Some research suggests that mindfulness improves a person’s attention in response to emotional stimuli,  while other research shows no effects. Similarly, some evidence suggests mindfulness improves working memory, while other research suggests that mindfulness actually impairs memory. Another purpose was to determine if a particular mindfulness intervention could induce increased levels of state mindfulness. The current study examined a sample of Caucasian, early-adult, university students of both sexes.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: a 10-minute mindfulness induction condition, an attention control condition, or an arithmetic control condition. In each condition, participants completed a self-report measure of state mindfulness. Attention regulation was determined using a computerized emotional stroop paradigm, where emotional and neutral words were presented on a computer screen and participants indicated the font-colour for the word using the keyboard. Reaction times for each presented word-type were measured. Explicit memory was assessed with a surprise old/new recognition task, where half of the stimuli were presented during the emotional stroop task and half of the stimuli were novel, with response accuracy being measured. The data was analyzed with a series of 3×2 mixed ANOVAs.

The results demonstrated that participants in the mindfulness condition demonstrated significantly higher state mindfulness scores than controls in the arithmetic condition, but not different from those in the attention condition. Furthermore, this effect was only found for participants with high trait mindfulness. Those with low trait mindfulness showed no differences between conditions. The results also demonstrated that increased state mindfulness levels were associated with reduced reaction times for emotional words on the emotional stroop task as well as an overall reduction in recognition accuracy, however, these results were only found in participants with low levels of trait mindfulness.

The current experiment suggests that the mindfulness intervention does in fact induce higher levels of state mindfulness, but only individuals with high levels of trait mindfulness are aware of these changes or are able to report them accurately. Furthermore, state mindfulness is able to facilitate attention regulation in response to emotional stimuli, but at the cost of memory performance. Finally, these results demonstrate that although state mindfulness is able to impact cognitive processes, this relationship is mediated by an individual’s level of trait mindfulness.