Meditation May Get You Out of Mental Ruts

Mom, daughter and son sitting in the outdoors at a picnic meditate stretching out their hands to the sun at sunset
Practicing mindfulness meditation can get a person out of their rigid, myopic ways of thinking. (Image credit: maxim ibragimov | Shutterstock)

Meditation is often thought to help open up the mind, and new findings suggest it can steer people away from the mental traps that drag out problem solving.

Meditative techniques could help not only help negotiators and managers find novel solutions to challenges, but perhaps also help people who are depressed or suffer other mental disorders who can't see ways out of the problems that bedevil them, researchers said.

The psychologists found that, after only a few weeks of training, volunteers who learned "mindfulness practice" were better at switching strategies for problem-solving than volunteers who were not taught the technique. 

Meditation is often aimed at expanding the limits of consciousness. Scientists in recent years have discovered that various forms of meditation can alter their minds in a variety of beneficial ways, such as freeing the mind from distractions, boosting attention span, relieving pain, enhancing mood and mental toughness, sharpening the mindand even improving sex.

The researchers, three members of the psychology department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, noted that meditation training often stresses that one should live in the present and avoid dwelling on the past. As such, they reasoned meditation could help people steer clear of rigid, myopic thinking.

Their findings appeared online May 15 in the journal PLoS ONE.

Einstellung water jar task

The research began with the so-called Einstellung water jar task. Einstellung means "attitude" in German — in this case, it refers to the creation of a "mechanized" state of mind, a propensity for solving a given problem in a specific manner even though there may be better answers lying right under one's nose.

Volunteers were first shown the images of three jars on a computer screen. Each jar was described as capable of holding a certain amount of water. The participants had to pour a specific amount of water into a cup by using these three jars in the simplest, shortest method possible.

The first of their tasks was best solved by following the formula "jar B minus jar A minus two times jar C." For instance, jar A may have held 22 units of water, jar B 57, and jar C 10, with the goal of pouring 15 into the cup. If one started with B, or 57, and subtracted both A and 2C — 22 and 20, respectively — the result would be 15. [10 Ways to Keep Your Mind Sharp ]

The volunteers then were given versions of the problem that could be solved either with that same formula or more simply: with either the strategy "A plus C" or "A minus C." For instance, jar A may have held 18, jar B 48, jar C 4, with the goal of pouring 2 into the target. If one started with B, or 48, and subtracted both A and 2C — 18 and 8, respectively — the result would be 22. However, the result also would be 22 if one used the simpler, shorter solution of adding A and C — 18 and 4.

The simplest solution

The participants in this experiment included 12 volunteers with at least three years of experience in a form of Buddhist meditation known as Vipassana, plus 15 people with no meditation experience. The researchers found that experienced meditators were significantly better able to switch strategies — for instance, using the simplest of the two successful strategies in the example given — than people without meditation experience.

"The results demonstrate that mindfulness makes us less automatic, less blinded by our habits and past experiences, and enables us to better consider alternatives, to experience things in a fresh way, and with more of a 'beginner's mind,'" said researcher Jonathan Greenberg.

In another experiment, Greenberg and his two colleagues took 64 participants with no meditation experience and randomly put them into two groups of equal size, one of which was given six weeks of meditation training. At the end of this period, they were all tested with the water jar task, and those who received meditation training were significantly more able to switch strategies than those who did not. Since neither group had prior meditation practice, this sort of study was able to pinpoint meditation as being responsible for the effect, as opposed to, say, whatever factors might drive one to seek meditation in the first place.

"Mindfulness practice changes the way we think within just a few weeks of practice," Greenberg told LiveScience.

Thinking outside the box

In addition to potentially helping people with depression and suicidal thoughts to move away from repetitive, potentially harmful ways of thinking, mindfulness practice may help people in everyday situations, the researchers suggest. [10 Most Destructive Human Behaviors]

"A married couple that repeatedly gets into the same quarrels and arguments may be able to break the cycle and look at things in a fresh perspective," Greenberg suggested. "Clinicians may be better able to offer new ways of looking at a clinical situation. Negotiators may be better at finding novel ways to settle disputes. Managers may be better able to think 'out of the box' and replace existing non-adaptive procedures with new and improved ones."

"This difficulty of letting go of old, habitual and non-adaptive ways of responding for the sake of better ones may underlie many of our everyday difficulties," Greenberg added. "Findings of the study demonstrate that improvements with such difficulties may be achieved within just a few weeks."

Charles Q. Choi
Live Science Contributor
Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for Live Science and He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica.