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The Downside of Mindfulness

New research finds it makes us more susceptible to false memories.
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(Photo: Belight/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Belight/Shutterstock)

Close your eyes. Focus on your breath. Watch, without judgment, as thoughts and feelings arise in your mind, and gradually dissipate.

If those instructions sound familiar to you, you are one of the many people—including myself—who have taken up mindfulness meditation. And for good reason: Recent research has found the practice produces a variety of benefits beyond simple stress reduction, including improved test scoresreduced reflexive racial bias, and even helping dieters avoid temptation.

But it turns out that even this highly positive practice is not immune from producing unintended consequences. Newly published research finds mindfulness meditation makes us more likely to "recall" something that never actually happened.

Participants were significantly more likely to falsely recall the implied words after engaging in the meditation exercise than they were beforehand.

"By embracing judgment-free awareness and acceptance, meditators can have greater difficulty differentiating internal and external sources of information," writes a research team led by University of California–San Diego psychologist Brent Wilson. "Their reality-monitoring accuracy may be impaired, increasing their susceptibility to false memories."

In the journal Psychological Science, Wilson and his colleagues describe a series of experiments that provide evidence backing up this conclusion. The first, and simplest, featured 153 undergraduates who were randomly assigned to listen to either a focused-breathing exercise adapted from the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, or a recording in which they were instructed to let their mind wander freely.

Immediately afterwards, all participants took a standard false-memory test, in which they were briefly shown a series of words (including garbage, waste, rubbish, and junk), and then asked to write down as many of them as they could recall. The researchers then looked for how many included the word trash, which was not part of the list, but was strongly implied by the other terms.

The results: While the number of correctly recalled words did not significantly vary depending upon which lesson they heard, those who had undergone the brief mindfulness training were far more likely to include trash on their list.

Another experiment featured 140 undergraduates, who began by taking six tests very similar to the one described above. They were then randomly assigned to the mediation or mind-wandering exercise. Afterwards, they completed six more such tests.

Participants were significantly more likely to falsely recall the implied words after engaging in the meditation exercise than they were beforehand. This dynamic was not found for those who participated in the mind-wandering exercise.

Wilson and his colleagues explain the likely cause. Ordinarily, they write, an internally generated thought produces a "trace record," one that reflects the cognitive operations that were required to produce it. (Information encountered in the external world produces a different type of trace record, one that contains "greater sensory detail" than that provided by internally generated thoughts.)

But observing thoughts "without judgment or reaction" apparently eliminates these valuable cues, making it harder to later discriminate between things we encountered and things we merely imagined. In this way, they conclude, "mindfulness meditation appears to reduce reality-monitoring accuracy."

These results are not an excuse to suspend your meditation practice. They do suggest it would be wise to not depend too strongly on memory after you've been meditating. Then again, our memories are generally less reliable than we realize—which is something to meditate on.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.