November 14, 2013 | 7
Searching the keyword “mindfulness” on Google News turns up more than 9,000 results posted over the last few weeks.
The vast majority of headlines arrive in your browser resonating with hyperbolic overtones:
In the inevitable contrarian dialectics of journalism, this string of good news cannot continue forever. In other words, can mindfulness—and the meditation practices that foster it—really be good for everything?
A small cumulus cloud entered the picture Tuesday at the only event in the scientific world that boasts a big enough attendance to almost fill a small stadium for professional baseball. Researchers from Georgetown University Medical Center reported on Nov. 12 at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego that those with a low degree of mindfulness scored higher on pattern-finding tests than those who were further along the pathway toward enlightenment. (Mindfulness is defined here as attention to what is happening in the present moment in one’s surroundings.)
Those registering lower on a test that measured mindfulness were able to identify more quickly a series of repeating geometric patterns on a computer screen that they were unaware they were learning. This type of unconscious, or implicit, learning is the same automatic mental process used in teaching yourself to ride a bike or that a child marshals in intuiting underlying grammatical rules by listening to the ways a parent strings together sentences.
The work—performed by Chelsea Stillman and Darlene Howard— raises the question of whether mindfulness, in promoting an acute awareness of the sights and sounds that make up everyday experience, can inhibit the implicit learning that a skateboarder uses in mastering the Bertlemann Slide.
Even before presenting their work at the neuroscience meeting, the researchers invoked the “more research is needed” mantra. In an e-mail, Howard emphasized that this unpublished preliminary report is only “correlational”—there was no control group. Don’t drop your meditation practice, she urges, because of abundant evidence of other cognitive benefits. Mindfulness, for instance, might prevent formation of a bad habit—drinking or smoking—that also occurs through implicit learning.
Even if it is only preliminary, the study did what good pilot studies should do by rattling a bit the consensus view, even for a technique that is non-toxic and supposedly good for everything from easing pain to providing the needed mental calm to take the SATs.
Image Source: Nova/Wikipedia Commons