If you’re forgetful or make mistakes when you’re in a hurry, a new study from Michigan State University, the largest of its type to date, discovered that meditation can help you become less prone to making mistakes.
The study, which was published in the journal Brain Sciences, looked at how open monitoring meditation (meditation that focuses awareness on feelings, ideas, or sensations as they develop in one’s mind and body) changed brain activity in a way that suggested greater mistake recognition.
“In terms of impacts and advantages, people’s interest in meditation and mindfulness is exceeding what research can establish,” said Jeff Lin, an MSU psychology doctorate candidate and study co-author. “However, it’s remarkable to me that we were able to show how one session of guided meditation might cause changes in non-meditators’ brain activity.”
The findings show that different types of meditation can have varied neurocognitive effects, and Lin noted that little study has been done on how open monitoring meditation affects mistake recognition.
“Some types of meditation require you to concentrate on a single item, such as your breath, but open monitoring meditation is different,” Lin explained. “It requires you to focus within and pay attention to everything that is happening in your mind and body. The idea is to sit quietly and pay close attention to where the mind goes without becoming distracted by the surroundings.”
More than 200 people were recruited by Lin and his MSU co-authors, William Eckerle, Ling Peng, and Jason Moser, to see if open monitoring meditation improved people’s ability to recognize and respond to mistakes.
The individuals, who had never meditated before, were led through a 20-minute open monitoring meditation exercise while electroencephalography, or EEG, was used to assess brain activity. They were then placed through a computerized distraction test.
“Because the EEG can detect brain activity at the millisecond level, we were able to compare accurate estimates of neural activity following errors to correct replies,” Lin explained. “The error positivity is a brain signal that arises around half a second after a mistake and is associated to conscious error identification. The intensity of this signal is stronger in meditators than in controls, according to our findings.”
While the meditators’ work performance did not improve immediately, the researchers’ findings provide a promising glimpse into the potential of continuous meditation.
“These findings show that only 20 minutes of meditation may significantly improve the brain’s ability to recognize and pay attention to errors,” Moser stated. “It gives us more faith in what mindfulness meditation can do for performance and daily functioning right now.”
Lin is one of a small number of academics who use a neuroscientific approach to analyze the psychological and performance consequences of meditation and mindfulness, which has received widespread interest in recent years.
In the future, Lin says the research will expand to include a larger sample of people, test other types of meditation, and see if changes in brain activity might lead to behavioral changes with more long-term practice.
“It’s wonderful to see the public’s excitement about mindfulness,” Lin said, “but there’s still a lot of work to be done from a scientific standpoint to understand the advantages it may have, and, more importantly, how it actually works.” “It’s past time for us to take a more critical look at it.”