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Researchers: Mindfulness May Impede One Type of Learning

Darlene Howard  Darlene Howard, Davis Family Distinguished Professor in the department of psychology and senior investigator of the mindfulness study, says doctoral student Chelsea Stillman's findings "are fascinating and counterintuitive."

December 17, 2013 – Behavioral and neuroimaging studies suggest that mindfulness can undercut automatic learning processes that contribute to both good and bad habits, according to study by a Georgetown psychology professor and a doctoral student.

There is ample evidence that mindfulness, a popular practice meant to raise conscious awareness and keep people in the present, increases psychological wellbeing.

But Chelsea Stillman (G’15), a Georgetown Ph.D. candidate in psychology and lead author of the study, says her study showed that those reporting low on the mindfulness scale tend to learn more.

Habits Good and Bad

“Our theory is that one learns habits – good or bad – implicitly, without thinking about them,” Stillman says. “So we wanted to see if mindfulness impeded implicit learning.”

For the study, two samples of adult participants first completed a test that gauged their mindfulness character trait, after which they completed different tasks that measured implicit learning.

Both tasks used circles on a screen with participants asked to respond to the location of certain colored circles.

Stillman presented the research last month at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting/

Fascinating and Counterintuitive

“The very fact of paying too much attention or being too aware of individual stimuli coming up in these tasks might actually inhibit implicit learning of the larger patterns they contain,” Stillman says. “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.”

Stillman works in the Cognitive Aging Laboratory led by Darlene Howard, the study’s senior investigator. Howard is Georgetown’s Davis Family Distinguished Professor in the psychology department and a member of the Georgetown Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery.

“Chelsea’s findings are fascinating and counterintuitive,” Howard says.

Don’t Stop Meditating

But she also says the findings don't suggest that people should stop using mindfulness or meditation.

"There is convincing scientific evidence that practicing mindfulness-based mediation improves other cognitive functions,” she says. “So we do need more research, not only to replicate our findings, but to understand their implications.”

In addition to Stillman and Howard, authors include Alyssa M. Coffin (C’13) and collaborator James H. Howard Jr., an adjunct professor of neurology at Georgetown University Medical Center who leads the Cognitive Aging Lab at Catholic University.

The study was supported by NIH grant RO1AG036863.

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