- Short-term memory and working memory have a limited capacity.
- Low memory capacity is linked with many difficulties in the performance of everyday activities (e.g., holding a conversation, shopping, driving).
- New research suggests a very brief session of mindfulness meditation (focusing on body and breath sensations) can improve short-term memory.
Before discussing the study, let us review the differences between different types of memory and then briefly discuss mindfulness and memory improvement.
Short-Term Memory, Working Memory, and Long-Term Memory
Memory is a complex phenomenon and has many types—auditory memory, tactile memory, visual memory, episodic memory, implicit memory, semantic memory, autobiographical memory, etc.
In this article, we will focus mainly on the following types of memory:
- Long-term memory refers to the “vast store of knowledge and a record of prior events,” like memories of your childhood.
- Short-term memory reflects the mind’s faculties capable of holding a “limited amount of information in a very accessible state temporarily.” An example is what you remember from the last sentence you just read.
- Working memory overlaps with short-term memory. To be specific, working memory includes short-term memory plus mental processes (e.g., sustained attention) involved in using short-term memory. For instance, you will need your working memory to summarize what you have been reading so far.
Working memory capacity varies among people. Low memory capacity, however, is associated with a variety of problems, like difficulties with learning, reading comprehension, problem-solving, etc. Therefore, there is much interest in memory improvement.
Common memory improvement strategies include physical memory aids (e.g., a string around a finger), mnemonics (i.e. memory techniques like the method of loci), “smart drugs,” special diets, and online cognitive training programs.
Improving Memory Using Mindfulness Meditation
A more recent approach to memory improvement is mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation may be defined as a mind-training technique that aims to help us reach a state of awareness described as calm, steady, and present-focused. This is a state in which we pay “attention using all our senses while maintaining a non-reactive and stable presence.”
How long of a meditation session is required for memory improvement—specifically, might a brief session suffice? This is the question the present research, described below, investigated. (Note, the researchers examined whether meditation improves “visual” short-term memory, not other types of short-term memory.)
Investigating Mindfulness and Memory
Participants: Ninety students (ages 18-25 years; 29 men; 83 White) were assigned to three conditions (30 each).
- Listening task: Those in the “audiobook condition” listened to Tolkien’s The Hobbit, those in the “meditation condition” listened to the “mindfulness of body and breath” exercise, and people in the control condition were free to spend the time however they wanted.
- Face memory task: 450 photos of White faces (equal number of men/women) with neutral expressions.
Methods: First, participants performed the face memory task, which required identifying new faces not presented previously on a computer screen. Then, they were randomly assigned to one of the three listening conditions described above. Subsequently, they all completed the face memory task once more (but with new faces).
- Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale (15 items).
- The Five-Factor Mindfulness Questionnaire (39 items). There were five subscales, consisting of observation, description, acting with awareness, non-judgmental inner experience, and non-reactivity toward one’s experience.
Mindfulness Improves Memory
The results showed that only those in the mindfulness meditation group—not individuals in the control condition or those who listened to Tolkien’s The Hobbit—showed a significant improvement in short-term memory.
Of course, this is in keeping with previous research, which has found mindfulness meditation improves memory and attention; however, the improvements in short-term or long-term memory are typically demonstrated in either experienced and long-term meditators (and attributed to years of practice) or in beginner meditators who have been practicing meditation for several weeks or longer.
So, the current findings—on the immediate benefits of a brief session of mindfulness meditation on cognition in novice meditators—represent a significant contribution to the body of research on the benefits of mindfulness for cognition and mental health.
How Does Mindfulness Meditation Improve Memory?
An important question is: How might only a few minutes of mindfulness meditation improve memory? One theory is that mindfulness reduces anxiety and stress reactivity. Specifically, mindfulness meditation might free up sustained attention and short-term memory previously occupied by distractions and worries. This would mean more mental resources are available for whatever it is one is trying to do, be it memorizing the first 1,000 digits of pi or the first names of guests at a party.
Another mechanism involves mindfulness practice aiding the identification of emotions; and more importantly, the acceptance of emotions, particularly unpleasant ones (e.g., fear, anger, jealousy, disgust). Such self-awareness can facilitate adaptive behavior. Why?
Because initial emotional reactions can provide useful information about a person’s internal state and external environment. But one may miss or misunderstand this information if he or she fails to identify the emotion, tends to avoid emotions, or often gets caught up in emotions. In contrast, mindful people, being more aware of their emotions, are more likely to feel motivated and know how to behave adaptively in a situation, which includes using memory effectively.
In summary, whether due to increased emotional acceptance, reduction in anxiety, or a different mechanism, even a brief session of mindfulness meditation practice appears to improve short-term memory.
So, if you want to improve your memory, experiment with mindfulness to see for yourself if it helps. How to meditate, you ask? A simple way to meditate is to spend 10 minutes focusing on your breath: Tune into your breath as it enters, moves through, and exits your body.
For readers who want to try the same mindfulness meditation used in the study discussed today, you can find the exercise (called “mindfulness of the body and breath”) in the book Mindfulness.
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