Too Aware? The Downside of Mindfulness Revealed

Yoga meditation (Image credit: Meditation photo via Shutterstock)

"Mindfulness" is the watchword of gurus and lifestyle coaches everywhere. But too much awareness could prevent the formation of good habits, new research suggests.

People high in mindfulness — a state of active attention to what's going on in the present moment — are worse at automatic learning, according to the study, which is being presented today (Nov. 12) at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego. Automatic processes lead to the formation of habits — both good and bad, said study researcher Chelsea Stillman, a doctoral student in psychology at the Georgetown University Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery.

"Our theory is that one learns habits — good or bad — implicitly, without thinking about them," Stillman said in a statement. "We wanted to see if mindfulness impeded implicit learning." [9 Healthy Habits You Can Do in 1 Minute]

Stillman and her colleagues recruited adults and tested their level of mindfulness. Next, each participant completed one of two implicit learning tasks. Both tasks involved watching a series of colored dots on a computer screen and responding when a certain color showed up in a certain location. For example, they might be shown a red dot on the left side of the screen, a red dot on the right and then a green dot on the left — the last dot displayed was their cue to press a button. Unbeknownst to the participants, however, the green dot on the left side of the screen would always show up two beats after the red dot on the left. If they automatically caught on to this hidden warning, their reaction times would be faster, indicating implicit learning.

The scores on these tests revealed that people who were less mindful reacted more quickly. In other words, the less they were actively engaged, the better they absorbed the patterns in the tests.

"The very fact of paying too much attention or being too aware of stimuli coming up in these tests might actually inhibit implicit learning," Stillman said. "That suggests that mindfulness may help prevent formation of automatic habits — which is done through implicit learning — because a mindful person is aware of what they are doing."

That inhibition of habit formation might prevent bad habits from taking hold, but it could also prevent healthy habits from forming. Still, other studies suggest that cultivating peaceful, active attention has its benefits. Meditation and mindfulness were shown to improve depression symptoms in a 2010 study published in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry.

And for explicit learning — the kind you have to work at consciously — mindfulness may be helpful. A study published this year in the journal Psychological Science showed that mindfulness improved scores on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), the test taken to show readiness for graduate school. Mindfulness training may prevent the mind from wandering during test taking, the researchers suggested.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.