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Is Mindfulness Good for Everything? Maybe Not for Learning to Ride a Bike

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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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:

“Pioneering Lee School uses mindfulness for pupils to beat stress and boost exams”

“How to Manage Your 40,000 Thoughts A Day and Keep Moving Forward”

“How Does Mindfulness Reduce Depression?”

“The value of mindfulness in Jewish Life”

Anche la Mindfulness abbassa la pressione sanguigna

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 In an e-mail,  Howard emphasized that this unpublished preliminary report is only “correlational”—there was no control group.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

Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. tuned 12:00 pm 11/14/2013

    Perhaps we are mindful of the benefit of training ourselves to do “difficult” tasks.
    Bikes have been around for a very long time. Anyone ever see a monkey learn to ride one without coaxing however? Shakespeare and typewriters, etc. Statistically possible but the sun will burn out before it really happens.

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  2. 2. lamorpa 12:29 pm 11/14/2013

    You have a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of mindfulness. It is not focused awareness of surroundings; It is ‘oneness’. One cannot be fully mindful if observer and the observed are viewed as different things. A “test that measured mindfulness” is a phrase without meaning.

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  3. 3. 1Eagle 4:19 pm 11/14/2013

    Your blog causes me to wonder if “mindfulness” could be partially responsible for the problems I’m encountering while attempting to learn how to play the piano?
    If I were to take the Mindfulness test I suspect I’d be high-scoring because of experience meditating and my profession as a computer programmer. What is happening as I program myself to associate a sound with a key and a finger, for example, I cannot hear the metronome because of the focus elsewhere. That has been somewhat overcome but “counting” (out loud) has proven to be VERY problematic! And especially when I’m “counting” while seeing a finger designation that conflicts. My practice book has finger numbers above some notes, saying “1” while seeing “2” causes me to stumble. As does, while playing an exercise, I hear an incorrect note has been played and my focus goes to the error and not what the other fingers are (supposed to be) doing. (If you are a pianist maybe you already know what it was like to learn music.) Another part of the challenge is that I’m 68 years old and find some things very challenging to learn now.

    Thanks for an interesting article!

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  4. 4. genevehicle 6:38 pm 11/14/2013

    In Reply to lamorpa:

    Hi There. I completely agree with your statement about their “test” for mindfulness. Perhaps there is a way to objectively measure mindfulness, but I can’t imagine how.

    But this “oneness” you speak of is a little off-base. Mindfulness is very, very simple–it is simply being present, paying attention to what is going on around, and more importantly, within you every instant. That’s it. The Buddhist practice of mindfulness meditation, is just that–it’s simply practicing being present at all times. And of course the more you do it, the better you get at it.
    This same Buddhist tradition also says that as you get better and better at paying attention, you will gain certain insights into the nature of being. One of those purported insights is the sense, or awareness, that all things are connected–an awareness of an essential “oneness” of all things.
    So mindfulness isn’t oneness, but if the Buddhists are right, mindfulness might help you experience this “oneness.”

    I can see how being mindful might short-circuit, to some degree, the unconscious processes mentioned in the article. A big part mindfulness is to foster purposeful action, as opposed to letting your subconscious rule your behavior. Still, there should be nothing stopping someone from consciously–mindfully–allowing their mind to take a step back, so to speak, and stop being mindful. Essentially, mindfully stop being mindful for a while… :)
    I’d like to see a group tested for this, along side the other two groups, and a control.

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  5. 5. lamorpa 8:11 am 11/15/2013


    You have a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of mindfulness. It is not focused (seperate) ‘awareness’ of surroundings; It is ‘oneness’ with those ‘surroundings’. One cannot be fully mindful if observer and the observed are viewed as different things.

    Link to this
  6. 6. JolieTerrazas 1:59 pm 11/22/2013

    Unfortunately, there is no link to the study or even the abstract (and I could not find it on the Society for Neuroscience Website or via Google). It is very important to see how exactly, mindfulness was defined and measured (among other research design elements i.e. sample size, sample characteristics, tests of statistical significance, etc.) to evaluate Stillman & Howard’s results. Therefore the invoked “mantra” of more research being needed is that of any responsible, ethical researcher. Showing up in a quality, peer-reviewed journal will shed light on this study: It is important to scientifically (not pseudo-scientifically) question the quasi-panacea that mindfulness seems to have become in some circles.

    Link to this
  7. 7. jooly64 9:09 pm 12/31/2013

    I have read a bit about mindfulness. It is a oneness, and awareness. Pondering is part of mindfulness. It is a way to be that is most desirable for the upward strivings of all people. In the Old and New Testament the Lord says many times, “Awake and arise…” These words are also found in the Book of Mormon and probably elsewhere, besides the writings of the Buddha. This is an exhortation to awake from the hypnotic state most of us are in and tune in, and then get up on one’s two legs and do something. This is part of mindfulness too, doing something while being one with the universe, the Lord, and probably is in many belief systems. I found the article to be very interesting. The comments of others were revealing as well. Thank you for the post and the comments.

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