Being Mindful about Mindfulness Studies


October 14th, 2015


A couple of weeks ago I spotted a newspaper article which reported findings from a recent study which had found that the practice of judgment free observation of thoughts and feelings, that is so key to mindfulness, may have the unintended consequence of interfering with our ability to identify real from imagined memories.

As someone who struggles to turn the volume down on my stream of consciousness, and pay attention to what my five senses are telling me about the here and now – was this the excuse I was looking for?! And what were the implications for Roffey Park, where we often help leaders to slow down, to be present, to attend to what is really important

There were hints in the newspaper article that the study’s conclusions were not as straightforward as the headline suggested: the study only had 153 students taking part; the mindfulness exercise was only 15 minutes long; and the study’s authors themselves had acknowledged the “countless benefits” of mindfulness.

Intrigued, I decided to find out what was going on.

There are lots of mindfulness studies, many of which are with people suffering from psychological problems, where results are encouraging with a significant reduction in anxiety, depression and stress. There are far fewer studies with healthy adult populations but, where they exist, the studies appear to show significant reductions in stress, and improvements in psychological wellbeing.

Phew – mindfulness does have the benefits that we intuitively know it does. But what about the possible downside of ‘false memories’?

The study1 featured in the newspaper asks people to study word lists, and then immediately try to remember those words. If this was done after a 15 minute mindfulness exercise, compared to a 15 minute mind-wandering exercise, there was no difference in the number of correctly remembered words, but the mindfulness group had a higher number of falsely remembered words that were associated with the word list e.g. if a list contained ‘tree, wood, green’ they would remember seeing ‘forest’ even though it was not on the list.

Another recent study2 used the same word list test, and also found a higher number of falsely remembered associated words for the 30 minute mindfulness group. However this study also found an increase in correctly remembered words for the mindfulness group (yet another benefit), and no difference in the number of falsely remembered random words between mindfulness and mind-wandering groups.

So it seems mindfulness is not causing us to spontaneously falsely remember things, and lose our grip on reality. In a psychology lab there is a risk of falsely remembering associated words after a short mindfulness exercise, but this needs testing outside of labs, with working adults, with real-life tasks, with longer term mindfulness interventions, before any firm conclusions can be made. Whatever the subject of research studies we need to continue to be mindful about the implications for our real complex worlds.

So when you’ve finished reading this, close your eyes, concentrate on deep abdominal breathing, and notice what your body is telling you with no judgment. Keep practising such techniques for even a short amount of time each day and enjoy the psychological wellbeing benefits.


1 Wilson et al (2015), Increased False-Memory Susceptibility After Mindfulness Meditation

2 Rosenstreich (2015), Mindfulness and False Memories