Studies of the short-term effects of mindfulness meditation on cognitive performance often show conflicting findings. These differences in study findings may result from heterogeneity in the populations, meditation methods, cognitive tasks, and study designs used, and the extent of participant’s prior meditation experience.
Sleimen-Malkoun, et al. [PLOS One] attempted to clarify the effects of short-term mindfulness meditation on cognitive performance by comparing it to a control intervention and studying its effect on cognitive reaction time in both experienced and novice meditators.
Forty-two healthy French adults, including 22 experienced meditators (64% female; mean age = 49 years) and 20 meditation-naïve participants (55% female; mean age = 42 years), were enrolled in the study. Experienced meditators meditated at least 3 times weekly over an average of over 5 years (range = 5-250 months), while meditation-naïve participants had no prior meditation experience.
Participants’ resting heart rates were recorded and they then performed a baseline Stroop task. Afterwards, half the participants engaged in 10 minutes of guided breath-focused mindfulness meditation while the other half actively listened to a 10 minute pre-recorded audio on the history, origins, and philosophy of mindfulness meditation without guided practice.
Participants then performed a repeat Stroop task. At this point, participants initially in the mindfulness condition were now assigned to the listening condition, and vice versa so that participants served as their own controls. Participants then completed a third Stroop task. Heart rate was monitored during both interventions.
The Stroop task was a cognitive performance task that involved showing participants computer-presented slides of colored words. Sometimes the words spelled the names of colors (e.g., “RED”), and when that happened, sometimes the text color agreed with the word name (congruent condition), and at other times text color and word name were discordant (incongruent condition). There were also times when the words named parts of the body, so that their color was irrelevant (neutral condition).
Participants were asked to identify the color the words were printed in and their reaction times were recorded. The Stroop task is a commonly used measure of participants’ attentiveness and ability to ignore distracting information.
The results showed Stroop reaction times to congruent and incongruent color word presentations were significantly faster after mindfulness meditation than after active listening. Average heart rates were significantly slower during active listening than while at rest, and significantly slower still while meditating.
The extent of participants’ prior meditation experience did not interact with experimental condition to affect Stroop reaction time or heart rate.
The study shows that a brief 10-minute mindfulness meditation is associated with slowed heart rate and improved Stroop task reaction times in both experienced and novice meditators. Acute cognitive benefit accrues after a brief meditation, even for novices.
The study is limited by its reliance on the Stroop task as the single outcome measure representing cognitive performance.
Sleimen-Malkoun, R., Devillers-Réolon, L., & Temprado, J.-J. (2023). A single session of mindfulness meditation may acutely enhance cognitive performance regardless of meditation experience. PLOS ONE, 18(3), e0282188.
Link to study