You Can Meditate, But Can You Learn to Ride a Bike?

Neuroscientists respond to a recent study suggesting mindfulness meditation might hinder learning.

“We know that being mindful is really good for a lot of explicit cognitive functions. But it might not be so useful when you want to form new habits,” says the Georgetown study’s leader, Chelsea Stillman, in a Sunday NYT Magazine article titled “Breathing In vs. Spacing Out.”

The author of the article, Dan Hurley, also the author of Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power, sums up the study this way: it’s up to us to find the balance between “breathing in” and paying attention (which is equated with practicing mindfulness) and “spacing out,” or letting our attention go. “The trick is knowing when mindfulness is called for and when it’s not,” writes Hurley.

We reached out to neuroscientists working in the field of mindfulness research to get their take on the Georgetown study. Additionally, we asked them to take Hurley’s assessment of the field—it’s growing—and expand upon it to show how this study reflects current debates in the field.

•  •  •

The Georgetown study shows how mindfulness may impede implicit learning—the kind of learning that happens without conscious awareness (like riding a bike or interpreting facial expressions). Participants first completed the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS), a 15-point mindfulness questionnaire testing a participants’ capacity to pay attention in everyday situations. (Higher scores reflect higher levels of “dispositional” mindfulness, or self-reported mindfulness.) The group found that individuals who reported higher levels of mindfulness performed worse on implicit learning tasks.

Sara Lazar, Assistant Professor of Psychology,

Department of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital

Lazar points out that in a news article that argues the scientific discourse around mindfulness is growing into a serious one—which is why negative papers are now emerging—Hurley decided to illustrate his point with a study that hasn’t actually been published yet.

Lazar says Hurley is “not being very cautious,” as the Georgetown paper still needs to be peer reviewed by colleagues working in the field—and only then will the revised results get published in a scientific journal.

Her concern is that even polished, published papers on mindfulness are subject to overblown interpretations. Lazar got her first taste of that when she and her team published a paper on mindfulness and cortical thickness.

“Oh my God, Howard Stern was on David Letterman shortly after my study came out. Howard Stern meditates and he said something to the effect of, ‘My head is bursting with grey matter because I meditate.’” Lazar laughs. “And I was like, ‘no, that’s not what we said.’ We saw a small increase in three regions—that’s what happens sometimes, people hear one small part of the data and they run with it.”

Lazar says people who read the data—celebrities and meditators alike—often interpret them as “oh, this makes you better.” Likewise, she says the Georgetown study stretched their findings to show how mindfulness can make you worse.

“The scientists made huge leaps in their interpretation,” says Lazar. “The Georgetown group didn’t measure habits. If they haven’t tested habit-formation, then they really can’t say these changes are going to change habits. They have over-interpreted their results.”

Lazar she sees a lot of colleagues get carried away with wanting to show how the benefits in meditation experience are consistent with the science—and it’s something she’s mindful of in her own work.

“There’s been plenty of cases where there’s something that’s consistent, but then, when you really study it properly, it’s not,” says Lazar. “Thank God for meditation practice in that regard. I try to notice when those thoughts and feelings are present when I’m doing my research and when I’m writing and I go back and edit myself.”

Judson Brewer, Director of Research

Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society

“Superficially, mindfulness has been equated with paying attention,” Brewer writes in a Huffington Post blog devoted to discussing research papers that describe needing to “turn off” mindfulness for certain cognitive tasks.

Brewer counters with the idea of flow: when you have high skills in a particular domain, combined with high challenge, and they’re well matched, action and awareness merge. Experienced practitioners don’t describe meditation as, “Gee, I had to pay attention for a long time.” Instead, they describe mindfulness as effortless.

In his own research at Yale University, researchers linked subjective experience to brain activity in meditators, and participants consistently reported a category of experience described as “effortless awareness” that directly correlated with decreased activity in a brain region associated with effort—previously shown to become deactivated during meditation.

Pigeonholing mindfulness as “paying attention” is problematic mindfulness research and contributes to some variance in results, Brewer notes, but it also points to a central hurdle: even experienced practitioners studying mindfulness cannot come to a consensus on its definition.

“I actually tried to interview my meditation teacher and his colleagues,” says Brewer. “I said, ‘We’re going to come up with a semi-structured interview for mindfulness’ and they laughed. None of them could agree on how they would—if they looked at someone walking into their interview room. And they teach retreats all the time.”

Brewer says the group came up with definitions that seemed to draw on the unconscious experience of meditating—the skill, the feel. Almost as if the definition they were grasping at drew on…some sort of implicit learning they gained from years of meditation and retreat experience.

“It came down to ‘well I have a gut feeling’ and that’s probably implicit learning for them—they figured it out but they can’t articulate that.”

David Vago

Department of Psychiatry, Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory

David Vago maps meditators’ brains at the Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, one of Harvard Medical School’s major teaching hospitals.

He says results obtained from questionnaires like the one used in the Georgetown study often tell us more about our constructs for measuring mindfulness than mindfulness itself—in part because they leave out other attributes that have been associated with mindfulness, like acceptance, empathy, and gratitude. “All other factors” beyond consciously paying attention “are excluded,” says Vago.

By suggesting that one learns habits—good or bad—implicitly, without thinking about them, the Georgetown group inevitably would have to say that mindfulness—defined as paying attention—has no place in our learning to ride a bicycle.

“When Jon Kabat-Zinn first described mindfulness from his perspective and created that definition—paying attention in the present moment in a particular way non-judgmentally—he also said very clearly that he’s using mindfulness as a placeholder term for the entire Dharma,” says Vago.

For Vago, defining mindfulness strictly as paying attention is only one way to think about mindfulness and the larger concept of meditation. He is in the process of publishing a paper with Lazar on moving beyond mindfulness to other measures of meditation in contemplative research.

“If we’re eliminating all those factors and focusing on just the awareness part, we may be losing something.”

David Creswell, Director of Health & Human Performance Laboratory

Carnegie Mellon University

Despite Brewer’s and Vago’s reports, Creswell says there is a working definition of mindfulness among researchers.

“Most commonly, people talk about mindfulness as this non-judgmental open and receptive attention to one’s present-moment experience,” says Creswell. “And that’s really a definition you see across most researchers. There’s this present-mindedness and this open, receptive, non-judgmental awareness.”

Creswell also uses self-report measures in his research. He says including a mindfulness training component is not essential to getting good data.

“Mindfulness is a basic capacity of awareness of what is happening right now, so it should be a construct that we can self-report on,” says Creswell.

Creswell sees merit in what the Georgetown group seems to be honing in on, and he says some of his own research—pairing mindfulness training and incongruence tasks (i.e. getting participants to guess the color of the word, even though it may be colored red and be the word “blue”)—represent some of the first forays into an area of mindfulness we don’t know much about scientifically: its limits.

“There are going to be cases where mindfulness may have no advantage or may have negative effects,” says Creswell.

Just as Lazar says she sees colleagues wanting to prove the benefits of meditation in their research, Creswell observes that the scientific literature up to this point characterizes mindfulness as a panacea—and that has to change.

“We are at the very beginning of developing a mindfulness science and we don’t really know what the boundary conditions are on mindfulness effects,” says Creswell. He adds that the first fMRI study incorporating mindfulness only came out in 2007.