Mindfulness Impairs Implicit Learning, New Study Shows

Why Mindfulness Could Stop Habits From Forming
handsome businessman thinking
handsome businessman thinking

A new study may help to explain why mindfulness is so successful against habit-making.

Researchers from Georgetown University found that mindfulness -- which is the awareness of the present moment -- is associated with a decreased ability to engage in implicit learning, the kind of learning that occurs when you're not even aware you're doing it.

The "findings are fascinating and counterintuitive. They are also consistent with previous research suggesting that neural systems supporting explicit cognitive functions may compete with those supporting implicit ones," study researcher Darlene Howard, a professor in the university's Department of Psychology, said. "However, our results are correlational, so we would not want them to be misinterpreted. They do not suggest that people should stop practicing mindfulness or meditation. In fact, there is convincing scientific evidence that practicing mindfulness-based mediation improves other cognitive functions. So we do need more research, not only to replicate our findings, but to understand their implications."

The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

Study participants were first tested on their levels of mindfulness, and then randomly assigned to do one of two tasks that measured their implicit learning (one task, for example, involved finding patterns among dots). An association was found between high levels of mindfulness and worse performance on the implicit learning tasks, as gauged by reaction times.

"The very fact of paying too much attention or being too aware of stimuli coming up in these tests might actually inhibit implicit learning," study researcher Chelsea Stillman, a Ph.D. student at the university, said in a statement. "That suggests that mindfulness may help prevent formation of automatic habits -- which is done through implicit learning -- because a mindful person is aware of what they are doing."

Indeed, studies have shown that mindfulness can help people quit one of the kings of bad habits: Smoking. Research published earlier this year in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that mindfulness meditation increased self-control among smokers and decreased the amount they lit up.

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