While numerous studies have hailed mindfulness meditation for its potential benefits for the mind and body, new research suggests it may have a negative impact on memory.

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While mindfulness meditation is believed to be beneficial for the mind and body, researchers say the practice may impair the ability to accurately recall memories.

Published in the journal Psychological Science, the study suggests individuals who engage in mindfulness meditation may have less accurate memories than those who do not take part in the practice.

“This is especially interesting given that previous research has primarily focused on the beneficial aspects of mindfulness training and mindfulness-based interventions,” notes first author Brent M. Wilson, of the Department of Psychology at the University of California-San Diego (UCSD).

Mindfulness meditation involves the act of eliminating distracting or negative thoughts, allowing intense awareness of one’s senses and feelings.

Medical News Today have reported on a number of studies citing the benefits of mindfulness meditation. Earlier this year, a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine linked the practice with improved sleep quality, while more recent research suggests mindfulness meditation may help people quit smoking.

In this latest study, Wilson and colleagues set out to determine how mindfulness meditation affects an individual’s ability to recall the origin of memories.

The team explains that memories originate from one of two sources: external or internal. External sources represent the memory of a real experience, such as the act of eating an omelet for experience, while internal sources represent the memory of an imagined experience, such as the thought of eating an omelet for breakfast.

“When memories of imagined and real experiences too closely resemble each other, people can have difficulty determining which is which, and this can lead to falsely remembering imagined experiences as actual experiences,” says Wilson.

The researchers conducted three experiments to determine how mindfulness meditation impacts the ability to correctly recall imagined and real experiences.

For the first experiment, 153 participants were randomly divided into two groups. One group was required to engage in a 15-minute mindfulness meditation session, in which they were asked to focus on breathing while eliminating any distracting thoughts. The other group was asked to let their mind wander and think freely for 15 minutes.

Fast facts about meditation
  • Meditation has been linked to improvements in pain, blood pressure and mental wellbeing
  • Around 18 million adults in the US use meditation, including mindfulness meditation and spiritual meditation
  • The number of children using meditation in the US increased by 202,000 between 2007 and 2012, rising to a total of 927,000.

Benefits of meditation for the mind and body

As part of this experiment, participants were then required to analyze a list of 15 words related to the word “trash,” such as garbage, waste and rubbish, and to remember as many of these words as possible. The team notes that, importantly, the list did not contain the key word “trash.”

The researchers found that 39% of participants in the mindfulness meditation group incorrectly reported seeing the word “trash” on the 15-word list, compared with only 20% of participants in the mind-wandering group.

In the second experiment, 140 participants were asked to analyze and recall words from the 15-word list prior to engaging in a 15-minute mindfulness meditation session or 15 minutes of free thinking. They were then required to complete another word recall test.

The team found that, not only were participants who engaged in mindfulness meditation more likely to incorrectly recall the key word than those in the mind-wandering group, but they were more likely to incorrectly recall the key word after taking part in the practice than before. This suggests mindfulness meditation may lead to greater recall of inaccurate memories.

In the final experiment, 215 participants were presented with a list of words – some of which they had heard earlier in the day, and some that were only related to words they had heard earlier. They were then required to engage in either 15-minutes of free thinking or mindfulness meditation.

While both groups had similar accuracy in pinpointing words they had heard earlier that day, the team found that those who engaged in mindfulness meditation were more likely to incorrectly identify words they had not heard earlier.

Based on the findings from all three experiments, the researchers suggest mindfulness meditation may interfere with cognitive processes that play a role in identifying the source of memories, causing individuals to recall imagined experiences as real experiences.

The team adds:

As a result, the same aspects of mindfulness that create countless benefits can also have the unintended negative consequence of increasing false-memory susceptibility.”

In April, MNT reported on a study published in The Lancet in which researchers suggest mindfulness meditation may be just as effective against depression as antidepressant medication.