Two Weeks of Meditation can Reduce Mind Wandering and Improve Mental Performance.

by fowlertm2 min read1st Jun 201317 comments

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There are any number of reasons why the Less Wrong crowd might be interested in mindfulness meditation.  Cultivating an ability to observe thoughts without being swept away in them could help in noticing when you're confused, looking into the dark, and, if you are skilled enough, actually changing your mind.  I've been on a couple of retreats myself, and I value meditation because it's a useful technique with a lot of field testing that can be studied free of the religious context it generally comes packaged in. The results have been positive -- I've learned what a mess my mind really is and my metacognitive awareness has improved noticeably.

Recent research suggests that we can add improved cognitive functioning to the list (Mrazek et al., 2013).  

There is no shortage of researchers and individuals interested in better thinking, and perhaps the most effective way of doing so is to "target a cognitive process underlying performance in a variety of contexts".  A great example of such a process is "the ability to attend to a task without distraction", as unrelated thoughts compete with the job at hand for limited working memory. Based on this it makes sense to hypothesize that, if mindfulness training can reduce mind-wandering and distractedness, it ought to boost mental performance.  

Psychologists at the University of California Santa Barbara examined this hypothesis using a test of reading comprehension and a test of working memory capacity.  Forty eight subjects, all undergraduates, were given two tasks: one, a modified version of the GRE verbal section and two, a test of working memory called the operation span task.  The verbal section simply had all the vocabulary questions removed, while the operation span task alternates something that must be memorized (like a letter) with something irrelevant (like an equation which must be evaluated as true or false).  If compared to someone else you can hold a longer string of memorized letters in your mind while also accurately evaluating equations, then you have a better working memory.  

Importantly, during these tasks a couple of different techniques were used to assess mind-wandering, including asking subjects to assess themselves after the fact and asking them semi-randomly during the task.  

Then the subjects were divided into a group which attended a two-week class on nutrition and a group which attended a two-week class on mindfulness meditation.  Meditation instruction was pretty straightforward: 

"Each class included 10 to 20 min of mindfulness exercises requiring focused attention to some aspect of sensory experience (e.g., sensations of breathing, tastes of a piece of fruit, or sounds of an audio recording)...Classes focused on (a) sitting in an upright posture with legs crossed and gaze lowered, (b) distinguishing between naturally arising thoughts and elaborated thinking, (c) minimizing the distracting quality of past and future concerns by reframing them as mental projections occurring in the present, (d) using the breath as an anchor for attention during meditation, (e) repeatedly counting up to 21 consecutive exhalations, and (f) allowing the mind to rest naturally rather than trying to suppress the occurrence of thoughts.

Two-weeks later, the groups were tested again and it was found that:

relative to nutrition training, which did not cause changes in performance or mind wandering, the mindfulness training led to an enhancement of performance that was mediated by reduced mind wandering among participants who had been prone to mind wandering at pretesting. 

I couldn't help but wonder about how much of a positive effect could be had by someone who didn't actually do the meditation. An interesting additional experiment to have done would've been explaining (b) and (c) (in the first block quote) to participants, asking them how much their minds wandered semi-randomly during a task and then after a task, and testing them again two weeks later.  Is noticing the problem enough to get a partial solution, or does flexing your attention add something that you can't get any other way?  

This is good news for those of us who would like to get the most out of our brains in an age before really high-octane cognitive enhancements are available.  

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I liked the post and have a follow up question.

In a lot of nutrition and supplement studies one will see a pattern where most people get minimal to no benefit, but some people with a deficiency get a large benefit. Once aggregated, the study shows a small but significant overall benefit. However if you try to action a change based on nutrition studies you will often get no personal benefit because you were not deficient to start with.

I'm not sure in how much detail you dug into the data when writing this, but do you know what the improvement pattern looked like? Did everyone improve a small amount, or were a lot of people showing no change and a few people showing large gains?

This obviously makes a big difference in how likely meditation is to be an effective intervention in our own lives.

This is a great succinct explanation of why you need to delve into study details. You'd think there would be better standards regarding clinical applicability, but there really aren't. You have to look at the characteristics of the sample and distribution of effect yourself as a general rule.

AFAIK this is the value proposition of Metamed, meaning the value of their services is higher than intuitively assumed at first glance.

An excellent question. From the article:

"Given that only participants whose minds had wandered at pretesting could measurably improve their focus, we next examined whether improvement in WMC and GRE performance following mindfulness training was mediated by reduced mind wandering specifically among participants who were prone to mind wandering at pretesting. Following Preacher, Rucker, and Hayes (2007), we ran a test of moderated mediation examining whether the effect of condition on change in performance (an average of changes in the proportion of correct responses on the WMC and GRE measures) was mediated by change in mind wandering (an average of z-score-standardized changes in probe-caught and retrospectively self-reported mind wandering) specifically for participants with high levels of baseline mind wandering (an average of z-score standardized probe-caught and retrospectively self reported mind wandering at pretesting; see Table 1)....Change in mind wandering therefore significantly mediated the effect of mindfulness training on change in performance among participants who exhibited a tendency to mind-wander at pretesting."

So it seems that the effect will probably be best for those who have the most mind-wandering at baseline.

I'm skeptical because this study seems designed to demonstrate meditation benefits, and there are a lot of folks who'd like to do so, so at least we have to deal with publication bias.

I'd add (e) to your suggestion that (b) and (c) might help without the physical practice. That is, if you're always thinking about how you're not supposed to let your mind wander away from the task ... don't think of an elephant, etc.

I have a lot of attention span problems and mindfulness meditation has been very helpful to me. It also just generally improves your quality of life, but attention span alone is reason enough to start. Just knowing about the problem isn't enough, you need to develop the skill of attention control at the five second level, as they say around here.

Thanks for the information, I too have a restless mind and have benefited from meditation practice.

So I was looking for an actionable item and failed to find one in your post. What do I do to get my feet... err.. mind wet in this mindful mediation thing? Are there some especially good books or sites or youtube videos you recommend to a novice? Googling around brings a lot of hits, but it's hard to assess which ones are worth it.

John Kabat Zinn offers a nice, nonsense-free angle on mindfulness meditation. His book full catastrophe living is very good but long and somewhat focused on people with anxiety disorders etc. (although served as a very good introduction for me). He has a number of other books I've heard are also good.

I strongly recommend reading a book as opposed to a website. Using a computer is just about the polar opposite of meditation.

Be prepared also for a fair bit of anti-reductionist nonsense if you go delving into the literature. Over time you'll learn to interpret it in such a way that you can extract the useful parts, without being overly annoyed by it.

If you want a light introduction to meditation, you could try the Take10 program over at Headspace. I found the structure very helpful to get me started.

BTW, what is the community's position on this kind of thing? I've seen posts which summarize research get massive upvotes and similar posts get downvotes. I wouldn't have posted it if I didn't think it was 1) novel and 2) of interest, but it seems like it might be polite to ask, as I'm fairly new.

Also, I'm certain I've read about other studies which look into the link between meditation and mental performance, but I didn't want this post to be a lit review. However, if anyone links to relevant studies, I'll update the OP with them.

I've seen posts which summarize research get massive upvotes and similar posts get downvotes.

To answer this, it would probably help to see specific examples. Without them, I can only guess wildly. So here are my wild guesses:

1) The article itself should be nicely written, easy to read. Short introduction at the beginning, easily legible text, summary at the bottom (with bold font), then references... I think this is close to optimal format.

2) Don't exaggerate. Don't pretend your references say more than they really do; don't pretend they are more reliable than they really are. (Also: don't post random stuff in "Main".)

3) It also depends on whether readers are interested in the topic, how much the topic was already discussed, and whether your article brings something new.

4) Most important: thousand other random factors. :D

For example, my rating of this article based on this criteria would be: 1) I like the way you write; 2) there is not much research in the article, but you don't exaggerate, so this makes it completely okay for me; 3) the topic seems useful and I don't remember it reading recently, but I also don't see much new information here. 4) Originally I didn't upvote the article, but when writing this comment I realised I actually like it and would like to encourage you, so I upvoted it now.

I agree with your breakdown, do you think this post would count as 'random stuff'? I've spent a lot of time browsing through Main and some pretty random stuff gets posted there, including by people like Luke and Eliezer. I did strongly consider posting to Discussion, but thought posting to Main would make a good experiment.

I meant simply "putting into Main an article that everyone else would put in Discussion". There is no single uniting topic for Main, but the idea is that the most important articles should be there -- for example exceptionally well written articles, or official announcements of MIRI and CFAR. (The rules are not exact, but I guess in the case of uncertainty you should post in Discussion and wait if someone else will recommend moving to Main. That happens, sometimes.)

I imagine that an article on meditation would be good for Main, if it contained a good description of meditation technique(s), and a list of a scientific articles about specific benefits of meditation. A good description would be one that wouldn't require familiarity with buddhist words and concepts, and would contain no bullshit. A technical description, like: "do this, and this will happen"; preferably if the same description was also used in the linked research.

I meant simply "putting into Main an article that everyone else would put in Discussion"

Ah, so I should apply Coherent Extrapolated Volition theory to LW user-preferences to decide where to put my posts ;)

Yeah, that would be a good start, though ideally you should apply CEV to make LessWrong posts no longer necessary ;-)

Anyone know the single meditation study that showed the best, most useful benefits from meditation and what meditation procedure did they use? I've had mixed results with meditation and I'm curious what the current science says is the best way to do it.