Meditation Technique Adversely Impacts Memory Retention

UCSD’s department of psychology published the results of one of its studies on Sept. 9 that suggests a possible detrimental effect of mindfulness meditation: false-memory recollection.

UCSD psychology graduate student Brent Wilson discussed the interest in studying mindfulness meditation and in the possible negative consequences of the exercise.

“Our results highlight an unintended consequence of mindfulness meditation: memories may be less accurate,” Wilson said to Psychological Science, the journal in which the study was published. “This is especially interesting given that previous research has primarily focused on the beneficial aspects of mindfulness training and mindfulness-based interventions.”

Mindfulness has a pervasive presence, with celebrities like Oprah Winfrey lauding the practice. Its touted benefits include better psychological well-being and decreased depression in older adults, and a reduction in pain intensity for people with chronic pain.

The research team explored how the cognitive processes associated with mindfulness affected how people remembered events as either originating from their imaginations or from reality. In the course of their study, they found that practicing mindfulness tended to lead to an increase in confusion between the two.

“When memories of imagined and real experiences too closely resemble each other, people can have difficulty determining which is which, and this can lead to falsely remembering imagined experiences as actual experiences,” Wilson said.

The research team investigated the cognitive processes involved in mindfulness and its potential to affect memory by preparing a series of three experiments, each using a slightly different approach.

The first two experiments employed the widely used method of false memory testing known as the Deese-Roediger-McDermott paradigm. This method presents a list of closely-related words to the subject, and then asks the subject to identify whether or not a word (which was not presented but is related to the other words) was on the list. In UCSD’s study, the words presented revolved around garbage but did not include the word “trash” — which subjects were asked about.

The first experiment separated participants into two groups: one practicing mindfulness, and one practicing mind-wandering exercises. The mindfulness exercise included watching a guided, focused-breathing exercise clip, while the mind-wandering exercise instructed individuals to think about anything that came to mind. Each group practiced its respective technique for 15 minutes, and then was tested using the DRM paradigm.

Of the mindfulness participants, 29 percent failed the paradigm while only 20 percent of the mind-wandering participants failed.

The second experiment used DRM lists by having participants view words on a computer screen for 1.5 seconds at a time. After completely viewing the list, they were tasked with typing back all of the words they remembered.

A greater portion of the mindfulness participants than the mind-wandering participants failed in the second experiment as well.

The third experiment used the second experiment’s method on a larger scale, with 100 words in random order and testing both before and after the mindfulness exercise.

This time, the mindfulness participants accurately recognized the words that they actually saw, but had a greater chance of falsely identifying related words after the mindfulness exercise.

Wilson noted that the results of the findings confirmed the increase in false recollection and confusion of memories.

“As a result, the same aspects of mindfulness that create countless benefits can also have the unintended negative consequence of increasing false-memory susceptibility,” Wilson said.

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