Mindfulness: Is There a Down Side?

Posted in News Release

WASHINGTON (July 26, 2014) — Mindfulness — that quality of being aware and “in the moment” — is known to increase emotional wellbeing and improve focus. But the benefits of such “explicit” thought do not appear to extend to all cognitive functioning, say researchers at Georgetown University.

They say in their study, published online this week in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, that being mindful is associated with poorer “implicit” learning, the acquisition of knowledge independent of conscious attempts to learn.

Explicit and implicit learning do not happen at the same time; using one method of learning seems to be at the expense of the other, says the study’s lead author, Chelsea Stillman, a PhD candidate in psychology at Georgetown. Stillman works in the Cognitive Aging Laboratory, led by the study’s senior investigator, Darlene Howard, PhD, Davis Family Distinguished Professor in the department of psychology and member of the Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery at Georgetown and MedStar National Rehabilitation Network.

“There is evidence that competition exists between the brain’s frontal lobe, which processes explicit conscious control of behavior, and the subcortical areas, where learning is more implicit or automatic,” says Stillman. 

To examine the role of mindfulness in learning, the research team asked 16 college-aged young adults to complete a series of tests. The first test gauged their mindfulness character trait, and then they completed one of two different tasks that measured implicit learning. Both tasks used circles on a screen and participants were asked to respond to the location of certain colored circles. These tasks tested the ability of participants to learn complex, probabilistic patterns, although test takers would not be aware of that. This sort of task is known as implicit sequential learning.

“What we found was surprising in that it was counterintuitive,” Stillman says. “Those who scored lower on the mindfulness scale actually tended to learn more.”

The authors suggest that people who deliberate less are better at implicit learning because they have a wider span of attention and focus on a wider variety of stimuli. In turn, this makes them more likely to capture relevant associations in complex tasks.

They conducted a second set of studies on 18 older adults and found the same pattern. But they also found several positive correlations between mindfulness and previously investigated cognitive and psychological health outcomes, “supporting the idea of a tradeoff in benefit,” Stillman says.

 “Chelsea’s findings are consistent with previous research suggesting that neural systems supporting explicit cognitive functions may compete with those supporting implicit ones,” says Howard. “However, our results are correlational. They do not suggest that people should stop practicing mindfulness or meditation.” She adds that much more research is needed, not only to further replicate the findings, but to understand their implications.

In addition to Stillman and Howard, researchers involved in the study include James H. Howard Jr., PhD, an adjunct professor of neurology at Georgetown University Medical Center and Halley Feldman, a former lab manager in the Cognitive Aging Lab in the department of psychology at Georgetown. This work is supported by National Institutes of Health/National Institute on Aging grants F31AG047037 and R01AG036863. The authors report having no personal financial interests related to the study.

About the Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery
The Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery, a Georgetown University and MedStar National Rehabilitation Network collaboration, focuses on the study of biological processes underlying the brain’s ability to learn, develop, and recover from injury. Through interdisciplinary laboratory and clinical research, the Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery aims to find ways to restore cognitive, sensory, and motor function caused by neurological damage and disease.

About Georgetown University Medical Center
Georgetown University Medical Center is an internationally recognized academic medical center with a three-part mission of research, teaching and patient care (through MedStar Health). GUMC’s mission is carried out with a strong emphasis on public service and a dedication to the Catholic, Jesuit principle of cura personalis – or “care of the whole person.” The Medical Center includes the School of Medicine and the School of Nursing & Health Studies, both nationally ranked; Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, designated as a comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute; and the Biomedical Graduate Research Organization (BGRO), which accounts for the majority of externally funded research at GUMC including a Clinical and Translational Science Award from the National Institutes of Health.