Mindfulness and Working Memory

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Photo by Etty Fidele

Working memory is a brain function that allows us to hold information in short-term memory long enough to manipulate or perform some action on it in order to solve a problem or come up with a response. It’s considered an “executive function“, which is a set of cognitive abilities that allow us to plan, organize, and initiate our behavior as well as self-monitor progress toward goals, inhibit responses, and shift gears as needed. Mindfulness practice has been positively correlated in the research with this important cognitive ability. 

Working memory has been described as our mental scratch pad or internal white board. We use our working memory every day for all kinds of tasks including interacting appropriately with others, making sense of and following through on instructions, reading with comprehension, solving mental math problems, working independently on projects, driving safely, being timely in our execution of tasks, and meeting deadlines. As you can imagine, working memory is crucial to our ability to function and thrive – maybe increasingly so in the modern age.

The hypothesis is that the positive relationship between mindfulness practice and working memory is created through reduced mind wandering and proactive interference, increased attention to immediate sensory information, and changes in the area of the brain associated with these functions. Neuropsychological research suggests these brain changes can moderate impairments to working memory related to aging, childhood adversity, and mental health conditions such as depression and PTSD. Individuals with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder often have unexpected deficits in working memory and mindfulness practice can help.

Because mindfulness training asks us to practice anchoring our focus to the present moment and letting go of the competing thoughts and memories that tend to distract us, I suspect this makes space on our mental scratch pads for important information, allows us to encode information with greater accuracy, and frees up resources to process the data more effectively and efficiently.

Resources

Greenberg J, et.al (2019). Reduced interference in working memory following mindfulness training is associated with increases in hippocampal volume. Brain Imaging and Behavior;13 (2) :366-376.

Jha, AP et. al (2019). Does mindfulness training help working memory ‘work’ better? Current Opinion in Psychology; 28, 273-278.

Jha, A. P., Stanley, E. A., Kiyonaga, A., Wong, L., & Gelfand, L. (2010). Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity and affective experience. Emotion, 10(1), 54.

Mrazec, MD, et al  (2013). Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering. Psychological Science, Volume: 24 issue: 5, page(s): 776-781.

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