COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Boeddhabeeld (Cakyamuni) op de Boroboedoer TMnr 60041875" by Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Source: COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Boeddhabeeld (Cakyamuni) op de Boroboedoer TMnr 60041875" by Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A key aspect of memory is your ability to distinguish things that actually happened to you from things you were just thinking about.  When you witness an accident, your ability to recall it properly requires that you remember whether facts you believe about that event came from what you actually saw and heard or whether they reflect other factors like things people said to you after the event was over.

This ability to separate information based on where you encountered it involves source memory.  Source memory is the memory for whether a particular piece of information was seen, heard, thought, dreamt, or imagined.  The more accurate your source memory for an event, better able you are to focus only on things that actually happened.

An interesting paper by Brent Wilson, Laura Mickes, Stephanie Stolarz-Fantino, Matthew Evrard, and Edmund Fantino in the October, 2015 issue of Psychological Science looked at how mindfulness meditation techniques influence source memory. 

Mindfulness meditation asks participants to relax and concentrate on the current moment.  Meditators focus on their breathing and reserve judgment on any thoughts that may enter their mind.  This technique has been studied extensively, because it helps many people to reduce stress, decrease pain, and feel better about life.

These researchers also thought that mindfulness meditation might get in the way of accurate source memory.  If you stop really analyzing the thoughts you are having, it may be difficult for you to distinguish between things you encountered and things you just thought about.

To test this possibility, the researchers used the Deese paradigm that was brought back into psychology in the 1990s by Roddy Roediger and Kathleen McDermott. 

In the Deese paradigm, participants hear a list of 15 words that are all related to a target word.  For example, they might hear words like glass, sill, and pane, that are associated with the target word window.  The target word is not on the list.  Yet, about 25-30% of the time, people report seeing the target word on the list. 

In one study, one group of people was guided through a mindfulness meditation technique, while a second group did a mind-wandering task in which they just thought about whatever came to mind.  After this manipulation, participants did a Deese paradigm list (which had the word trash) as a target.  More people falsely recalled seeing the target word when they had done the mindfulness meditation than when they did the mind-wandering task.

In a second study, participants did six Deese paradigm lists and then were given either the mindfulness meditation or mind-wandering task to do.  Then, they did an additional six lists. 

Before the manipulation, the two groups were similar in their performance.  They incorrectly recalled seeing the target word about 25% of the time.  The group that got the mind-wandering task also recalled the target word about 25% of the time after the manipulation.  However, the group that got the mindfulness meditation incorrectly recalled the target about 35% of the time. 

These studies suggest that mindfulness meditation creates a period of time in which people decrease the amount of evaluation they do of new information that they encounter.  That can help people to stop thinking repeatedly about negative things, which can reduce stress.  However, unless you analyze the information you encounter to some degree, it is hard to distinguish between those things that you encountered in the world and those things you just thought. 

The Deese paradigm is a way of creating a false memory in a lab situation.  People are recalling things that they did not actually experience.  It is a far cry from falsely remembering a single word to falsely remembering key details of an event.  However, these results suggest that practitioners of mindfulness meditation may have trouble with source memory in the period of time following a meditation session and so they may create false memories.  Further work should look at more elaborate kinds of false memories to see whether they are affected by mindfulness meditation.

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