Studies reporting the benefits of mindfulness training keep rolling in—not quite with the regularity of those distracting thoughts that keep popping up in your head, but at a good clip nonetheless.
The latest, from a team at the University of California, Santa Barbara, reports even a short, two-week course in focusing the mind can lead to immediate, tangible results: higher scores on tests measuring reasoning and comprehension.
“Our results suggest that cultivating mindfulness is an effective and efficient technique for improving cognitive function, with wide-reaching consequences,” a research team led by psychologist Michael Mrazek writes in the journal Psychological Science.
The researchers describe a study featuring 48 undergraduates (14 male, 34 female). They were randomly chosen to spend two weeks in a four-day-per-week class on cultivating mindfulness, or an alternative course focusing on good nutrition.
Among other things, the mindfulness students took part in regular exercises that involved “focused attention to some aspect of sensory experience,” such as eating a piece of fruit.
They were also trained in the art of ignoring or dismissing thoughts of past experiences or future concerns by continually refocusing on the present moment. To reinforce this training, they were assigned to meditate for 10 minutes daily outside of class.
At the beginning and conclusion of the study, all the participants took two tests. One was a modified version of the verbal-reasoning section of the GRE, a standard test for application into graduate school. Mrazek and his colleagues describe it as “an assessment of reading comprehension.”
The second measured working memory capacity, the all-important ability to hold information in your mind while you process and apply it. Participants were asked to remember clusters of three to seven letters while performing an unrelated task.
The results: the nutrition instruction “did not cause changes in performance or mind-wandering,” the researchers write. In contrast, the mindfulness training led to “significant improvements in performance” on both tests.
Specifically, “the change in GRE accuracy from mindfulness training led to an average improvement analogous to 16 percentile points,” Mrazek and colleagues write.
The researchers tie these improvements directly to a better ability to focus on the questions at hand, especially among those students “who had been prone to mind wandering.” Using several methods, they determined those who had taken the mindfulness training were better able to maintain their attention on the material.
"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," Mrazek said, according to a UCSB media release.
As we reported a few days ago, one way to improve test scores is to believe you already have the answers. If tricking yourself in that way proves problematic, this study points to a different, and potentially quite effective, method.
If you’re spending 10 hours a day studying for that law- or medical-school exam, it’d be wise to carve out 10 minutes to meditate.