Infinite Benefits of Mindfulness: Panacea for Cognition & Life? Not exactly.

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There is a lot of talk about the benefits of mindfulness and mindfulness meditation. It’s almost common knowledge that mindfulness can positively affect our emotions and mood. A number of therapies and self-help strategies speak about how mindfulness can improve one’s mood and even reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression. However, there is a lesser-known benefit of mindfulness – it improves a wide range of core cognitive functions and thinking processes.

Caution: Mindfulness has its problems and downsides too. I’ve covered them at the end.

This article will focus on how mindfulness affects cognition, over and above its effects on mood and psychological well-being. Cognition is a core aspect of our mental experience. Cognition involves attention, memory, perception, and higher-order executive functions like decision-making and reasoning.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, accepting, and attentive mental state where the mindful person observes sensory and mental experiences in the present moment. A mindful mental state is an open-minded awareness of sensations, thoughts, emotions, ideas, internal body functions, and objects in one’s environment. The most important aspect of mindfulness is being non-judgmental in the sense that there is no evaluation or sense-making of experiences – it’s just noticing what has entered the mind. There is no attempt to analyze the implications of experiences. The other important aspect of mindfulness is being in the present, in the now.

Mindfulness is a supercharged form of observation without judgment. Practicing it can improve memory and creativity, and even reduce biases. The overall effect is a multifaceted improvement in the quality of life. Click To Tweet

The goal of mindfulness is to detach from the past experiences and future expectations/predictions to live in the present & now in a fully welcoming, aware way. Mindfulness is moving away from the brain’s default automatic mind-wandering state to get closer to an accepting attentive state. With a mindful mental state, you let the thoughts and experiences come & go and see them for what they are – just thoughts and experiences. Nothing more and nothing less. It is simply acknowledging one’s experiences while engaging in purposeful actions. Most of the benefits of mindfulness come from decentering[1] – a mental state where thoughts are just fleeting temporary experiences and not unchangeable facts.

How does the common English definition of “being mindful” connect to the psychological definition of mindfulness? In casual conversations, we use “being mindful” to mean “being careful, considerate, attentive, and empathetic”. This requires a psychological state of mindfulness that is non-judgmental and accurately accepts information present in a conversation and context. Acquiring that information is mindfulness (psychologically speaking) and acting on it to show empathy and consideration (conversationally speaking).

Let’s compare the differences between mindfulness, mind-wandering, and non-mindful mental states

Characteristics of mindfulness vs. mind-wandering vs. non-mindfulness

Non-judgmentalJudgmental & non-judgmentalJudgmental
Deliberate attentionAutomatic attentionDeliberate & Automatic attention
High awarenessLow awarenessLow awareness
Open-mindedOpen-mindedMostly closed- or limited-minded
Careful actions/behaviorUnmonitored actions/behaviorUnmonitored actions/behavior
AcceptingAccepting & non-acceptingAccepting & non-accepting
Present & in-the-momentPast, present, and futurePast, present, and future
Non-emotionalEmotional & non-emotionalEmotional & non-emotional
ObservationalUsually Self-referentialSelf-referential, ego-centric
Notice thoughts as they occurRarely notice thoughts as they occurRarely notice thoughts as they occur
Characteristics of mindfulness

In essence, mindfulness is defined as a careful, attentive, accepting, non-judgmental perception of one’s immediate mental & physical reality in the present moment. Mindfulness is a cognitive state of strict awareness. Author Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” Kabat-Zinn says mindfulness has 7 components:

  1. Non-judgment: Be an observer and witness, not an actor.
  2. Patience: Grant yourself space, tolerance, and time.
  3. A beginner’s mind: Think like you are new to something. (interesting related concept)
  4. Trust: Believe in your knowledge and experience.
  5. Non-striving: Be. Don’t chase. Just be.
  6. Acceptance: Accept your thoughts as they are instead of interpreting your thoughts.
  7. Letting go: Be in the moment and let go of things that are not in the moment.

Holistic Psychological benefits of mindfulness: Better quality of life & mental health

One of the reasons why mindfulness is so popular and important is that it has a holistic impact on our mental space. Specifically, mindfulness activities positively affect all 3 psychological aspects of our day-to-day lives – cognition (thinking, attention), emotion (mood, stress), and conation (intent, motivation). This means that mindfulness can help people with various mental health issues[2] (especially anxiety and depression[3]) and improve the quality of life[4] on many fronts – professional[5], personal[6], and social[7].

Mindful people or those trained in mindfulness could have lower stress[8] and anxiety[9], higher resilience to trauma[10] and better chronic pain management[11], high inner self-acceptance[12], or better sleep[13] or even sex[14]. The effect of mindfulness is important in other often neglected nuances of well-being too. For example, in one study[15], mindfulness was associated with a lower financial gap between what one has and what one desires. And that is good because a high financial gap between the current state and desired state reduces well-being. Mindfulness can create the effect of “having enough” that promotes satisfaction with one’s finances and that could promote a higher quality of life.

If I were to make a non-exhaustive list of the benefits of mindfulness, I’d get something like this:

  1. Reduces stress, anxiety, and depression
  2. Improves mood
  3. Improves relationships and sex
  4. Helps readjust after trauma
  5. Reduces chronic pain
  6. Improves sleep hygiene
  7. Promotes self-acceptance
  8. Improves life satisfaction

Let’s now get into the lesser appreciated cognitive boosts that mindfulness can give.

Cognitive benefits of mindfulness: Improved thinking & processing

Mindful meditators typically have a good attention span.[16] One reason is that mindfulness is a context for good attention. But this benefit is not just inherited or set in stone. A research review[17] of many studies suggests that training people on mindfulness practices can improve many aspects of attention and some aspects of executive functioning and memory too. You might wonder how long does it take to see these benefits? One study[18] suggests that just 4 days of mindfulness meditation can enhance our active remembering capacity called “working memory” and attention along with visuo-spatial processing and executive functioning. The cognitive effects of mindfulness can last long with practice too. Overall, the research is pretty conclusive about the benefits of mindfulness – learning mindfulness improves cognition. Let us now explore some specific advantages of mindfulness.

Fun fact: Mindfulness can slow down time.

Mindfulness meditation may promote creative thinking

Mindfulness meditation as well as concentration meditation[19] have a positive influence on creativity. Cognitive flexibility may play a role in higher creativity even though spontaneous cognitions are lower. One reason mindfulness could promote creativity is that mindfulness actively absorbs new information. People pay attention to a wide range of details while practicing mindfulness. In this stage, many different networks of ideas could combine and produce creative thoughts. Cognitive flexibility allows people to take new perspectives, simultaneously entertain many different ideas, and remember unrelated ideas. These processes promote abstract thinking as well as concrete thinking, which ultimately leads to creative thinking.

MBCT can improve the strength and accuracy of memories

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy[20] (MBCT) can improve executive functions and improve autobiographical memory specificity. This means that a structured mindfulness approach to improving life through common therapeutic techniques like these can improve memory for personal experiences and improve the accuracy of remembering the details. This study also suggests other benefits of MBCT like better shifting of attention and better self-control to stop automatic impulses.

Mindfulness can counter the cognitive deficits in depression & anxiety

Many people who deal with depression and anxiety experience a decline in their cognitive abilities – attention, thinking, memory, concentration, decision-making, etc. A major benefit of mindfulness activities is that they can help depressed people recover their cognitive abilities. Research shows that mindfulness can improve cognitive functioning[21] for those with cognitive impairment in depressed people. Like in depression, a common problem in anxiety is poor cognitive flexibility which means the mind cannot shift attention between important things, it fixates on one thought or idea. Cognitive flexibility is important for decision-making, concentration, and active thinking. Low flexibility usually translates into limited thinking and indecision, but mindfulness could help with that. Research suggests mindfulness may slightly improve cognitive flexibility[22]in those with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Along with Yoga, mindfulness is a core coping strategy for depression.

MBET can improve mental functioning in traumatized people

Mindfulness involves moving away from mind-wandering by bring attention to the present and now. Mindfulness-based exposure therapy, a way to re-acquaint with traumatic images by paying non-judgmental attention to the details, can help those with PTSD. For those suffering from PTSD or C-PTSD, there may be flashes of traumatic images and that could interfere with smooth mental functioning. MIndfulness-based exposure therapy (MBET) could increase the default mode network connectivity with[23]executive control regions. This means that MBET could help people with PTSD to regain control over their thoughts and shift their attention away from traumatic thoughts. In essence, it could mean that MBET can reduce PTSD symptoms.

Highly sensitive children can cope with overwhelming sensations & perceptions

Mindfulness could shield a child from[24] the negative effects of high sensory processing sensitivity. People with high sensory processing sensitivity, commonly dubbed as Highly sensitive people (HSP), process experiences with high depth. This leads to feeling overwhelmed by small things. Sensations and perceptions get amplified. The good feelings appear extra-good and the bad feelings appear extra bad. Small changes in sounds, taste, or room lighting could also amplify and create discomfort. Up to 35% children can be highly sensitive[25]. For about a third of the children, mindfulness can redirect attention away from daily magnified and amplified experiences in a deliberate way. Mindfulness helps them disengage from the emotional overwhelm and consciously acknowledge them without much emotional weight. The focus shifts away from emotional reactions to neutral acknowledgment.

Mindfulness can reduce distractions and prevent negative thinking

Mindfulness meditation could be particularly helpful[26] for those who often ruminate and get distracted. Remembering and getting preoccupied with negative thoughts is called rumination. Distraction (or inability to concentrate) and rumination are common symptoms of anxiety and depression. Even without a diagnosable mental health issue, rumination and distractibility are common interferences in most people’s day-to-day living. Especially when there are moderate problems like low self-esteem and social anxiety that make it easy to get preoccupied with negative thoughts about oneself and critical judgment from others. Mindfulness meditation could reduce rumination and distractibility, over and above lowering anxiety and improving mood.

Mindfulness activities can reduce mental biases

Our thinking is often biased and sometimes there are negative perceptions such as age- and race-related biases. One positive effect of mindfulness is countering biases. Research[27] suggests that mindfulness meditation can reduce biases by weakening associated ideas that form the bias. When we form irrational biases or stereotypes, we connect judgments with people or objects. Mindfulness can help to break the connection between judgment and people or objects.

How is mindfulness practiced?

People can be mindful by default and that is called trait mindfulness. For them, mindfulness is an ingrained approach to mental experiences. However, most of the research (cited in this article) also demonstrates that mindfulness can be practiced and learned by anyone. The best way to practice mindfulness is to apply the definition of mindfulness in any activity you perform – mindfulness is defined as a careful, attentive, accepting, non-judgmental perception of one’s immediate mental & physical reality in the present moment. You can reap the benefits of mindfulness with any day-to-day activity.

The specifics of how and when to practice mindfulness are covered here.

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Common activities to practice mindfulness in

  1. Bathing: Bathing is an excellent time to get in touch with your body and notice it for what it is.
  2. Eating: Mindful eating is a popular approach to enjoying and experiencing food. Notice the different tastes and mouth-feels. Notice the smell. Pay attention to your portion sizes. Notice the physical act of eating. Understand how you feel when you eat something.
  3. Sex: Mindful sex is a great opportunity to have a shared mindful experience at the physical and emotional level. It is likely to improve your sex life and improve other valuable elements of a relationship – trust, understanding, acceptance, etc.
  4. Sports: Physical activities have a number of movements that we rarely noticed. Practiced movements are often automatic. Learn to observe your movements and monitor your breathing to experience an immersive mindful state.
  5. Cleaning: A lot of cleaning demands attention so being mindful could be easier than in sports. Use your existing attention to observe and notice dust patterns, wipe marks, and hand movements.
  6. Conversations: Mindful talking and Mindful listening are about paying close attention to what you are saying and what you are hearing. Focus on the words, voice, tone, changes in vocal pitch, pauses between words, body language, facial expressions, etc. While speaking, pause and purposefully choose what you want to say.

On top of that, there are some structured mindfulness techniques that can help people learn the art.

5 Mindfulness activities and techniques to learn mindful awareness

1. Mindfulness grounding technique

The quickest mindfulness technique to snap out of anxiety or panic and re-attach with the real world is the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. This technique “grounds” you in your current reality – away from mental chaos. More on that here.

  1. Notice 5 things you can see
  2. Notice 4 things you can hear
  3. Notice 3 things you can touch or are touching you
  4. Notice 2 things you can smell
  5. Notice 1 thing you can taste

2. Mindfulness meditation

  1. Choose a comfortable sitting position with a healthy posture.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Sit upright but don’t stiffen-up
  4. Slowly breathe-in and breathe-out
  5. Focus on your breath for a few rounds, feel the air and body’s movements
  6. One by one, notice all the sensations around you.
  7. If your mind wanders, don’t worry. Let the thoughts occur and observe them. Don’t suppress them.
  8. After observing them, regain your attention and focus on more sensations.
  9. If you are out of sensations, visualize a stream of energy entering your fingers, toes and nostrils with each breath. Notice the energy exit as you breathe out.
  10. If you feel like moving, don’t suppress the urge but take a deliberate decision to perform your movement.
  11. Continue slow breathing as you reach the end of your meditation session.
  12. Slowly open your eyes and engage with the world around you.

3. Mindfulness breathing

  1. Choose a comfortable sitting position with a healthy posture.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Sit upright but don’t stiffen up.
  4. Slowly breathe-in and breathe-out.
  5. With every breath, notice the flow of air and the expansion and contraction of the lungs.
  6. Notice the fluidity of breathing as you continue for a few minutes.
  7. Slowly open your eyes and engage with the world around you.

4. Mindfulness-based stress reduction

Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn developed an 8-week group program that includes a variety of mindfulness techniques that can improve mental and physical health. The MBSR is an evidence-based program[28] (also commonly used to test the effects of mindfulness) and it progressively teaches how to be mindful and reach a higher level of awareness. It includes relaxation, mindfulness meditation, breathing, yoga, body-scanning, group discussions, a retreat, and daily homework exercises.

5. Contemplative practice

Contemplative practice is a common term used to describe many forms of meditation. One such form[29] is a deeply attentive and introspective form of meditation. In contemplative meditation, let your thoughts come and go. Let them unfold and create emotions. Notice those emotions as emotions you are having. That is, “you are having your emotions; you aren’t your emotions.” Contemplative practice is meta-cognitive (thinking about thinking) and purposeful.

The problems of practicing mindfulness

Mindfulness is often seen as a panacea for well-being. However, just like hunting for happiness and showing too much empathy have downsides, mindfulness also has downsides. Mindfulness can create its own set of problems, and you may have to judge for yourself if mindfulness has more rewards than risks.

1. Blindly accepting the current status can undermine personal growth.

Mindfulness is based on the principle of non-judgmental acceptance of experiences. While non-judgment can block spiraling negative thoughts, it can make people passively accept their current state for what it is. If the current status quo is negative and people desperately want to make changes, blindly accepting their negative state is counterproductive. It may make people take less responsibility for their own growth. The passivity is responsible for keeping people unhappy when they accept their unhappiness as their default mental state. Improving well-being requires useful changes and adjustments, which we call “adaptation.” On the flip side, blindly accepting a positive mental status can potentially protect people from unnecessary self-critical behavior. For example, successful people may want to blindly (non-judgmentally) accept their personal effort to counter the impostor syndrome.

2. Mindfulness may lower empathy for narcissists.

Paying attention to what others are saying, listening intently, learning their experiences, and acknowledging their perspectives are key components of empathy. It may seem logical that paying better attention to details can increase empathy. However, research suggests[30] that mindfulness meditation might not increase empathy for most people and even make it worse for narcissists. One explanation for lower empathy in narcissists is mindfulness may reinforce a self-centric perspective that may create a barrier to acknowledge others’ perspectives. This may cause extreme frustration in those who practice mindfulness correctly but can’t find more empathy in relationships. Focusing on breathing might not be enough to invoke a mindful state of mind in all people, according to the researchers. This is in line with the more cognitive notion of mindfulness which has more to do with attention than any cultural or body-centric context of mindfulness.

3. Highly independent, self-focused people may become less helpful after a mindfulness session.

In a previous article, we looked at 3 levels of identity. The first level highlights individual-level traits like personality, likes/dislikes, job/career, personal attitudes, skills, etc. The second level focuses on relationships and the third level focuses on “larger-than-life” aspects of identity like oneness and spirituality. Any level can be the dominant form of identity. Typically, the first level is dominant for self-focused people, and the second level is dominant for relationship-focused people. More on that here.

new study[31] (currently unpublished as of May 2021) suggests that those with a dominant self-focused identity (aka the relational independent self-construal) are less likely to help others after a short mindfulness training session. However, in the study, the mindfulness session made those with a dominant relationship-focused identity more helpful toward others. This is consistent with the idea that self-focused people will further highlight their personal experiences and sensations after being mindful while placing themselves at the center of their experiences. But, relationship-focused people may pay a lot more attention to other people’s experiences in relation to their own, making them more compassionate/helpful toward others.

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