Mindfulness and the Marines

Mindfulness training got some attention in the NYTimes Magazine last weekend. It seems that the Marines are using mindfulness exercises to improve resiliency.

“We found that getting as little as 12 minutes of meditation practice a day helped the Marines to keep their attention and working memory — that is, the added ability to pay attention over time — stable,” said Jha, director of the University of Miami’s Contemplative Neuroscience, Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative. “If they practiced less than 12 minutes or not at all, they degraded in their functioning.” Jha, whose program has received a $1.7 million, four-year grant from the Department of Defense, described her results at a bastion of scientific conservatism, the New York Academy of Sciences, during a meeting on “The Science of Mindfulness.”

"Gently return your attention to the breath, Private."
"Gently return your attention to the breath, Private."

I couldn’t locate Jha’s original paper (newspapers have an annoying tendency not to link to scientific source material). But taking it at face value, I find it encouraging. For one thing, their program involved 12 minutes a day of mindfulness training. Some meditation programs that have documented efficacy require far more time (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is great, but it involves 40 minutes a day of meditation). I don’t care how busy you are--you can find 12 minutes a day for this. If you can't, then you could probably really benefit from it.

The article goes on to cites the documented benefits of mindfulness training for graduate students, and then mentions some potential drawbacks of mindfulness training:

Raising roadblocks to the mind’s peregrinations could, after all, prevent the very sort of mental vacations that lead to epiphanies. In 2012, Jonathan Schooler, who runs a lab investigating mindfulness and creativity at the University of California, Santa Barbara, published a study titled “Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation.” In it, he found that having participants spend a brief period of time on an undemanding task that maximizes mind wandering improved their subsequent performance on a test of creativity. In a follow-up study, he reported that physicists and writers alike came up with their most insightful ideas while spacing out.

Allowing time to zone out is certainly important. But here's the thing: Unless you live in a monastery, your life is likely filled with opportunities for wandering attention. In our distracted culture, practicing mindfulness for 12 minutes a day is akin to walking 12 minutes a day, or eating 1 more vegetable a day. I imagine you could overdo these things, but no one really seems to be struggling with that problem.

Jha goes on: Another potential drawback to mindfulness has been identified by researchers at Georgetown University. In a study presented at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in November, they found that the higher adults scored on a measurement of mindfulness, the worse they performed on tests of implicit learning — the kind that underlies all sorts of acquired skills and habits but that occurs without conscious awareness. In the study, participants were shown a long sequence of items and repeatedly challenged to guess which one would come next. Although supposedly random, it contained a hidden pattern that made some items more likely to appear than others. The more mindful participants were worse at intuiting the correct answers.

“There’s so much our brain is doing when we’re not aware of it,” said the study’s leader, Chelsea Stillman, a doctoral candidate. “We know that being mindful is really good for a lot of explicit cognitive functions. But it might not be so useful when you want to form new habits.” Learning to ride a bicycle, speak grammatically or interpret the meaning of people’s facial expressions are three examples of knowledge we acquire through implicit learning — as if by osmosis, without our being able to describe how we did it. (Few of us can recite the rules of grammar, though most of us follow them when we speak.)

Leaving aside the methodological limitation (categorizing people by self-reported mindfulness is not the same as training people to do it), it's an interesting finding. I can see how mindfulness might interfere with implicit learning; if you’re tuning out the meaning of the task and attending instead to its sensory aspects, it could be problematic. Think of a pianist contemplating his fingers during a recital.

But implicit learning is not habit formation. Not exactly. You can form the habit of studying Japanese everyday (and mindfulness can help you do that), but the actual learning involved is far more complex than mere habit formation.