Study: Meditation Improves Memory, Attention

Students who did about an hour of "mindfulness training" for eight days subsequently did better on the GRE as well as tests of working memory and mind-wandering.
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(chez_sugi/flickr)

PROBLEM: The Internet is probably destroying our attention spans and working memories, but companies still want employees who are able to "focus." Also, even though they are pretty minimally predictive of professional success, academic admissions departments still seem to love standardized test scores. Improving memory and ability to focus takes years of cultivation and training, but getting the most out of your abilities as they stand is another valuable skill. 

METHODOLOGY: Researchers at University of California at Santa Barbara had 48 undergraduate students take either a mindfulness class or a nutrition class. Classes met for 45 minutes four times per week for two weeks. They were taught by "professionals with extensive teaching experience in their respective fields." The mindfulness class "emphasized the physical posture and mental strategies of focused-attention meditation." As they describe that class more specifically:

It required participants to integrate mindfulness into their daily activities and to complete 10 minutes of daily meditation outside of class. During class, participants sat on cushions in a circle. Each class included 10 to 20 minutes of mindfulness exercises requiring focused attention to some aspect of sensory experience (e.g., sensations of breathing, tastes of a piece of fruit, or sounds of an audio recording). ... Classes focused on:
  • Sitting in an upright posture with legs crossed and gaze lowered, distinguishing between naturally arising thoughts and elaborated thinking
  • Minimizing the distracting quality of past and future concerns by reframing them as mental projections occurring in the present
  • Using the breath as an anchor for attention during meditation
  • Repeatedly counting up to 21 consecutive exhalations [Ed. note: presume inhalations occurred as well.]
  • Allowing the mind to rest naturally rather than trying to suppress the occurrence of thoughts.

The students in both classes took the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations; the standardized tests considered for grad school application) before and after the two-weeks of class, as well as tests of memory and distractibility, where they counted their "task-unrelated thoughts" while doing things that required concentration.

SHARK300200.jpgPsychological Science

RESULTS: Scores improved in the mindfulness-trained group, but not the nutrition-trained group. For one, their average GRE verbal score went from 460 to, two weeks later, 520. They also improved on tests of working memory and focus (had fewer task-unrelated thoughts).

IMPLICATIONS: Taking time to think about your thoughts, breathing, posture, and the like can be valuable to overall cognitive functioning. This is the opposite of staying in a library for 86 hours fueled by Adderrall and anxiety. Kaplan's GRE prep course is $1,299, and a ton of people buy it. Meditation is free, so while that much is invested, this is probably worth checking out. Even if you can't find time to meditate exactly, there's always a moment to think intensely about fruit or "your breathing as an anchor."


Th study "Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering" is published in the journal Psychological Science.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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