Mindfulness May Be Giving You False Memories

Mindfulness meditation is having a big moment right now—and with good reason. The sitting meditation, characterized by judgment-free feelings and thoughts, boasts countless powerful benefits that go way beyond just making you feel more zen, like helping you eat healthier, train harder, and sleep sounder. (For the full rundown, check out these 17 Powerful Benefits of Meditation.) But a new study, published in Psychological Science, suggests that all those stress-squashing benefits may actually cost you in one area: your memory.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego conducted a series of experiments in which one group of participants was instructed to spend 15 minutes focusing on their breathing without judgment (the mindfulness meditation condition) while another group was to simply let their minds wander during the same timeframe.

Researchers then tested both groups’ ability to recall words from a list that they’d either heard before or after the meditation exercise. In all experiments, the mindfulness group was more likely to experience what scientists call “false recall,” where they “remembered” words they never actually heard—an interesting consequence of staying in the moment. (Find out How Technology Messes With Your Memory.)

So what does mindfulness have to do with our ability to remember things? The findings suggest that the act of staying totally present may mess with our minds’ ability to make memories in the first place. That seems counterintuitive, since mindfulness is all about paying acute attention to what you’re experiencing, but it’s more about how our brain records memories.

Normally, when you imagine something (whether it’s a word or an entire scenario), your brain tags it as an experience that was internally generated and not actually real, according to Brent Wilson, psychology doctoral candidate and lead author of the study. So, like the participants in the experiment, if you hear the word “foot,” you’re likely to automatically think of the word “shoe,” because the two are associated in our minds. Normally, our brains are able to tag the word “shoe” as something we generated ourselves as opposed to something we actually heard. But according to Wilson, when we practice mindfulness meditation, this trace from our brain is reduced.

Without this record designating certain experiences as imagined, memories of your thoughts and dreams more closely resemble memories of actual experiences, and our brains have more difficulty deciding if it actually happened or not, he explains. Crazy! (Counteract it with these 5 Tricks to Improve Memory Immediately.)

Bottom line: If you’re getting your “om” on, beware your susceptibility to the false memory phenomenon.

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