Mindfulness and Memory
The powerful link between mindfulness and learning
Posted June 30, 2019
Much of the research on brain health focuses on externally-directed behaviors to enhance memory and reduce the risk of Alzheimer's. As a result, we have great data on how best to move, eat, sleep, and engage with our world in order to maximize the health of our most important organ.
But how about our internal world? How might we harness the landscape of our thoughts and emotions to enhance our memory, beyond using our willpower and knowledge to guide externally-directed behaviors? A recent study provides some powerful insights.
But before we review the findings, let’s explore a phenomenon we all experience but are often unaware of, and which directly impacts how much new information we are able to learn and remember.
The paradox of new learning
Our ability to learn and remember new information is impacted by many factors. For example, let’s say you were asked to remember the following phrases:
There are several issues that might interfere with your ability to learn these phrases: external noises that distract you, decreased ability to pay attention due to fatigue, or a lack of motivation to focus on the information, among other possibilities.
But it’s also possible that your previous knowledge could diminish your ability to learn the phrases above. For example, your previous knowledge of “green grass” could make learning “red grass” more challenging. This phenomenon of previous information diminishing the ability to learn new information is called proactive interference.
Proactive interference happens all the time in our daily lives: when we forget to take a new route to work due to a road closure, when we look for an item in its previous aisle at a newly remodeled grocery store, or when we call a person we just met by the name of someone they remind us of. Tragically, proactive interference has also been blamed for deadly industrial accidents that resulted when machine buttons were given new functions (e.g. “stop” instead of “go”). It impacts us on many levels that we are often unaware of.
Proactive interference can also occur on an emotional level. Let’s say you were invited to a family birthday party at a restaurant where you got food poisoning the year before. How likely would you be to make a new, positive association with that restaurant? If you were able to do so, it would likely take additional time, and an intentional overriding of your previous negative emotions. It’s important to note that proactive interference differs from its welcome counterpart—proactive facilitation—in which previous learning actually facilitates new learning (such as when you learn a complex math equation more easily because you understand basic math, or when you show enhanced ability to manage stress due to emotional resilience).
When proactive interference occurs, it decreases the effectiveness of our working memory, or the “mental scratchpad” we rely on to keep newly-learned information quickly available to us while we package and store it for future retrieval.
How might we be able to learn new information more accurately, with reduced interference? Recent research on mindfulness examined just this question. In the study, half of the participants were taught mindfulness, or a practice of “moment to moment non-judgmental awareness” (as popularized by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn). Others were taught a creative writing task. Both groups were shown a series of cards with letters on them and asked to determine whether letters they saw later were the same or different as those they saw before. Those with mindfulness training were quicker and more accurate in differentiating the targets they most recently saw from previous targets, as compared to their performance prior to mindfulness training.
Although several previous research studies showed that mindfulness was associated with increased growth of the hippocampus (a brain region involved in packaging to-be-remembered information), this study was the first to show increased hippocampal growth in the context of improved working memory. In other words, mindfulness was associated with both enhanced brain structure and brain function.
How might we learn to use mindfulness to decrease the level of interference from our previous learning, and view information and situations anew?
Here are three tips to get started:
1. Notice when previous information or experiences appear to be impacting your ability to learn new information. For example, you might notice you are requiring more time than usual to learn information, needing to review new information more frequently, or automatically linking previous strong emotions to a current situation.
2. Take a moment to intentionally differentiate the new information from the old. Try to be specific about the differences. Visualizing the new information can help. For example, do you recall the two phrases you learned earlier? If not, take a moment to visualize red grass. Spend a few moments to make the image salient, and say “red grass” while you visualize it. Now stop thinking about the image, and say “red grass.” See if you can bring the image to mind quickly. If not, say it again a few more times until the image comes to mind quickly. Chances are, this process will help you remember both “red grass” and “yellow sky” more effectively.
3. A few times per day, take about two minutes to pay attention to whatever it is you’re doing, whether that is sitting in a chair, walking across a room, or eating an apple. See if you can pay attention to the moments as they unfold. Notice any thoughts or judgments that may come to mind. Remind yourself that thoughts and judgments are a normal human phenomenon, and that your only job is to notice them and move onto the next moment and whatever it holds.
If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness, there are many good books that provide guidance (those by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who created “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction,” are highly effective and have strong empirical support). However, given the experiential nature of mindfulness, it is usually best to learn the practice initially in a class with an experienced teacher. Classes in “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” and other mindfulness classes can easily be found in most cities.
By combining externally-focused brain health strategies such as exercise, nutrition, sleep, and cognitive engagement with internally-focused strategies such as mindfulness, we may notice a synergistic effect in enhancing not only brain health but well-being.
Now, what were those two phrases again?
Greenberg, J., Romero, V.L., Elkin-Frankson S., Bezdek, M.A., Schumacher, E.H., & Lazar, S.W. (2019). Reducted interference in working memory following mindfulness training is associated with increases in hippocampal volume. Brain Imaging and Behavior, 13, 366-376.