Mindfulness and Working Memory

Can mindfulness change how we process information? David Whitehorn explains.

Photo: Sarah G./Flickr.com

Mindfulness practice has many benefits, not least of which is to demonstrate that we can actually change the way we experience our own mind. In a model of cognitive processes, Dr. John Teasdale proposes that mindfulness practice also changes the fundamental way we process information.

Dr. Teasdale, one of the pioneers in the development of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, presented this new model at the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies, held in Denver in April 2012. At the core of the model, a product of nearly twenty years of work, is the idea that the human brain/mind has two ways to process information. One of these, termed “propositional,” involves using concepts and conventional logic. In this mode we divide the world into categories and use comparisons to make judgments and decisions. In contrast, the other mode of processing, termed “implicative” is holistic and intuitive in nature. Situations and experiences are grasped rather than analyzed.

In Teasdale’s model there are two forms of “working memory” where information can be temporarily held and processed. The implicative working memory is older in terms of evolutionary development and, importantly, has relatively direct input from the sensory systems, particularly those arising from the body. The propositional working memory is newer in terms of evolutionary development and is several steps removed from sensory input, receiving information from the senses only after it has been pre-processed.

The relationship of each of the forms of working memory to sensory input is particularly emphasized in the model. The propositional system is highly removed from the senses and is therefore prone to “drifting off” into extended conceptual journeys that have little or nothing to do with what is happening in the present. The implicative system, on the other hand, is closely tied to senses, particularly those from the body, and is thereby more directly linked to what is happening in the present moment.

Each of these forms of working memory have their pros and cons in terms of processing information and are, therefore, appropriate for different kinds of tasks and situations. For example, the propositional system provides the opportunity to explore the past and the future, and to create complex conceptual frameworks that can be used to create new devices to aid human existence. The implicative system, on the other hand, may be better for understanding complex social interactions in real time.

Teasdale suggests that as the evolutionarily newer propositional working memory became available we humans have tended to over-emphasize its use and have come to identify its way of processing as being more accurate and “real,” as compared with the implicative mode.

The over-reliance on the propositional working memory, in turn, can be seen as a root cause of the high level of anxiety and dissatisfaction that marks our individual and social life, for it is in the propositional mode that we compare our individual and collective experiences against concepts we hold about how things could or should be.

Teasdale proposes that mindfulness practice involves shifting our attention to the implicative working memory and using it more often. (Note as well that in the model, using the implicative working memory is facilitated by attending to sensory information from the body.) The experience resulting from more use of the implicative mode appears to be appreciation and a sense of connectedness, rather than dissatisfaction.

Interestingly, the implicative working memory is also capable of drawing concepts from the propositional working memory and examining them within an implicative context. This process, which Teasdale calls “post-conceptual,” can be seen as the basis for contemplation, the process of holding concepts in a holistic, non-judgmental environment.

The basic ideas in Teasdale’s model may sound familiar. The idea that mindfulness practice can help us shift the way we examine and come to know the world is fundamental in all contemplative traditions as is the identification of two forms of “knowing,” one involving concepts and comparisons, the other being non-conceptual and holistic. Teasdale has connected these ideas with concepts from cognitive science to create a model that can help generate research questions while it challenges and stimulates our insights into the operation of our own mind.

To see Mindful.org’s Editor-in-Chief, Barry Boyce, interview David Whitehorn about the contemplative studies field, click here.