A new study has found that a short mindfulness meditation session may increase cognitive abilities, regardless of whether you are a frequent meditator or new to the practice. The research is published in PLOS One.

Mindfulness meditation is a non-religious mental practice rooted in Buddhism that teaches individuals to focus their attention on the present moment, using curiosity, acceptance, and openness. Mindfulness is the quality of being self-aware of the current experience, including thoughts, emotions, and sensations, without judgment, filters, or expectations. It involves two key components: orientation to experience and self-regulation of attention.

While long-term mindfulness meditation practice has shown significant improvements in attention, cognitive flexibility, and inhibition, short-term mindfulness meditation practice has yet to be thoroughly examined.

Rita Sleimen-Malkoun and colleagues intended to differentiate the immediate cognitive impacts of a guided mindfulness meditation session and examine the potential influence of prior mindfulness practice on the outcomes. The study used a within-subject design where all participants underwent both interventions in a randomized sequence to minimize individual response bias. The participants included 22 individuals who regularly meditated and 20 who were new to the practice.

Participants’ resting-state heart rate was recorded for 5 minutes, followed by baseline cognitive performance testing using the Stroop task.

The task involved looking at words displayed on a screen and identifying the color of the font without paying attention to the meaning of the word. There were three different conditions in the task: when the color of the font matched the meaning of the word, when the color of the font didn’t match the meaning of the word, and when the word had nothing to do with colors and the font color didn’t match its meaning. Participants had to press a key on a keyboard as quickly as possible to indicate the color of the font.

Participants were then randomly assigned to either an attentive listening or guided mindfulness meditation intervention as the researchers recorded their heart rate. Their cognitive performance was tested again afterward with the Stroop task.

The research team found that both interventions were equally engaging for participants, regardless of their previous mindfulness meditation experience. However, mindfulness meditation had a more significant effect on heart rate, likely due to the breathing exercise involved.

In addition, the results showed that participants were faster in all three Stroop task conditions after both interventions, with mindfulness meditation resulting in the fastest reaction times. The study suggests that focusing attention on a specific object (breath in mindfulness meditation) can enhance the ability to select relevant information and inhibit irrelevant stimuli.

The research team acknowledged some limitations to the study, including the absence of specific tests to separately evaluate attention, cognitive flexibility, and inhibition processes and the lack of a passive control intervention alongside the active control and mindfulness meditation interventions. Additionally, although the study employed a broad-spectrum task (Stroop), the duration of acute effects and the number of cognitive tests that could be performed were limited.

Despite this, the study’s findings suggest that acute cognitive benefits can result from even a single 10-minute mindfulness meditation session without needing prior mindfulness training or experience. This finding is significant since it demonstrates the potential of mindfulness meditation to enhance cognitive performance in a short time.

While attentive listening also provided some cognitive benefits, the mindfulness meditation intervention’s specific component of focusing on the present moment was crucial for optimizing these benefits. The study suggests that both interventions can potentially improve cognitive performance in the short term, and further research is needed to confirm their potential for enhancing brain functioning and well-being in the long run.

The study, “A single session of mindfulness meditation may acutely enhance cognitive performance regardless of meditation experience“, was authored by Rita Sleimen-Malkoun, Louise Devillers-Réolon and Jean-Jacques Temprado.

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