The downsides of mindfulness

I’ve read a bit about the practice called mindfulness which, for lack of a better description, is a kind of focused attention on your surroundings. But paying close attention to your sensory experiences of the moment you can, the argument goes, transcend a lot of your worries and break the limiting tether to your ego or self. I’ve made passable stabs at mindfulness, often at a park or in nature, and it can be quite refreshing—a sort of mental reset button.

Part of the idea of mindfulness is that you focus one a specific thing, say your breathing. If a disruptive thought comes in, say, “I have to do my taxes” (Shit! I DO have to do my taxes!!!), you recognize it and let it dissipate, then return your focus to the now. As you train your mind in this practice, you experience less disruptive thoughts.

I’ve wondered if there’s a potential downside to this. Much of creative thought is of the sort that pops in to your head your while you are thinking about something else. Wouldn’t mindfulness, with its focused approach (albeit a rather gentle focus), eliminate these moments of inspiration? The answer, according to this NY Times article, appears to be yes .

But one of the most surprising findings of recent mindfulness studies is that it could have unwanted side effects. Raising roadblocks to the mind’s peregrinations could, after all, prevent the very sort of mental vacations that lead to epiphanies. In 2012, Jonathan Schooler, who runs a lab investigating mindfulness and creativity at the University of California, Santa Barbara, published a study titled “Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation.” In it, he found that having participants spend a brief period of time on an undemanding task that maximizes mind wandering improved their subsequent performance on a test of creativity. In a follow-up study, he reported that physicists and writers alike came up with their most insightful ideas while spacing out.

“A third of the creative ideas they had during a two-week period came when their minds were wandering,” Schooler said. “And those ideas were more likely to be characterized as ‘aha’ insights that overcame an impasse.”

And that’s not all…

Another potential drawback to mindfulness has been identified by researchers at Georgetown University. In a study presented at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in November, they found that the higher adults scored on a measurement of mindfulness, the worse they performed on tests of implicit learning — the kind that underlies all sorts of acquired skills and habits but that occurs without conscious awareness. In the study, participants were shown a long sequence of items and repeatedly challenged to guess which one would come next. Although supposedly random, it contained a hidden pattern that made some items more likely to appear than others. The more mindful participants were worse at intuiting the correct answers.

“There’s so much our brain is doing when we’re not aware of it,” said the study’s leader, Chelsea Stillman, a doctoral candidate. “We know that being mindful is really good for a lot of explicit cognitive functions. But it might not be so useful when you want to form new habits.” Learning to ride a bicycle, speak grammatically or interpret the meaning of people’s facial expressions are three examples of knowledge we acquire through implicit learning — as if by osmosis, without our being able to describe how we did it. (Few of us can recite the rules of grammar, though most of us follow them when we speak.)

The solution is probably moderation in all things, including mindfulness.

  1. No Comments