Meditation, Mind Wandering and Learning
May 24, 2018

Samir Patel, Specialist in School Psychology, Sankalpa Academy

Meditation refers to both a process and a state. In traditional meditative practices, the state is one of absorption in content-less awareness. The process to achieve this state is also referred to as meditation. In the psychology literature, the process has been categorized into two types.  One is concentrative meditation which involves focusing on something rudimentary such as one’s breath while repeatedly bringing one’s attention back to it whenever attention drifts. The second is mindfulness-based meditation, which involves being aware of any thoughts that may come into the mind as a detached observer. Both processes have the beneficial side-effects of reducing mental chatter and increasing concentration. Incidentally, these are components that would promote learning. 

Learning can be thought of as the acquisition, storage, and transformation of knowledge. These are processes that require many specific cognitive functions. Particularly, attention, memory consolidation, and the subsequent retrieval are key. Attention allows us to attenuate the large amounts of information coming in through our senses so that we can focus on what we want to without the interference of other sensory stimuli. What is often not recognized is that internal distractions, or mind-wandering, are just as much of an interference. 

Researchers have discovered a correlation between the internal mind-wandering state and specific brain structures known as the default mode network (DMN). Generally, this network is active whenever we are not engaged in anything and becomes relatively deactivated whenever we are attempting to achieve a goal. Interestingly, DMN activation has also been observed when mind wandering interferes with people’s attempt at being goal-directed (Mason et al., 2007). Moreover, one group of researchers found that their ADHD subjects had decreased coherence within this network when compared to a control group (Uddin et al, 2008). Even more interesting, is that experienced meditators, compared to non-meditators, have less activation and greater coherence in the DMN, both at rest and while engaged in a task (Brewer et al., 2011).

The presence of mind wandering not only affects attention, but also memory consolidation. Consider the common experience of learning something in class but forgetting it by the time the test comes around. This is in part a failure of memory consolidation, or the stabilization of a memory trace after initial acquisition (Dudai, 2004).  Many factors have been implicated to account for the variability of how much we remember. The presence of interfering mental stimuli that conflicts with the memory trace is one such factor (Sheth et al., 2009). One pathway in which meditation improves learning outcomes is through its capacity to decrease mental interference.

In addition to mind wandering, stress can also be thought of as mental interference. It is like a tax on working memory. This has been demonstrated in students solving math problems under the pressures of monetary incentives, peer pressure, or potential social evaluation (Beilock & Carr, 2001, 2005). When put under pressure, students who had above average working memory capacity chose to use less successful and less memory intensive strategies to solve math problems, thus resulting in poorer results (Beilock & DeCaro, 2007). A group of researchers studied the effects of meditation on U.S. Marines over an 8-week period as they prepared for deployment to Iraq. Over the training period, Marines who rarely practiced suffered significant degradation in working memory capacity where as those who spent more time meditating demonstrated modest improvements in working memory capacity (Jha & Stanley, 2010). This suggests that meditation practice may protect against degradation in working memory capacity within a stressful environment.

Recently, schools have been eliminating many “non-essential” subject areas from student’s curriculum focusing, rather, on the subject areas that are assessed by high stakes testing. I see this as short-sided and counter intuitive. There are a host of skills not explicitly taught in many schools that directly influence students’ capacity to learn and be optimal problem solvers. Meditation is certainly one such skill. In light of the evidence presented here, imagine the mileage that can be obtained from common math and reading instruction if that instruction was occurring alongside meditation training. Imagine the long-term global impact it would have on a student’s life if this training began from the pre-school or elementary years!




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