Linking Mindfulness with Cognitive Performance

Mindfulness has been a hot topic lately. Even the Harvard Business Review recently published on the topic. I’ve also been thinking about mindfulness and how it might relate to cognitive and athletic performance. The most current research I’ve found explores the link between mindfulness and cognitive performance and attempts to build on previous research work. I’ve attempted to summarize the journal article below.

What is mindfulness?

There are varying definitions, but arguably the most common is “awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgementally.” (Kabat-Zinn). Mindfulness is a state of awareness, but is also viewed as a skill that can be improved. Using the Five Factor Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ), mindfulness is an aggregate of five factors: observing, nonjudging of experience, describing, acting with awareness, and nonreactivity to inner experiences:

  • Observing: aware of and recognizing thoughts and feelings
  • Nonjudging of experience: objectively considering thoughts and feelings without assigning value
  • Describing: recognizing and labeling the thoughts and feelings an individual experiences
  • Acting with Awareness: staying present and aware in the moment; disregarding distractions
  • Nonreactivity to inner experiences: ability to remain calm and objective when facing thoughts or feelings that may prompt an emotional response

How does mindfulness relate to improved cognitive performance?

Despite the belief that mindfulness impacts cognitive performance, few studies sought to determine the relationship. Earlier mindfulness studies that attempted to link mindfulness to cognitive performance were specific to intensive mindfulness training in the context of mediation, but links either weren’t found, or no significant difference was discovered between test and control groups.

By contrast, the Klein and Lancaster study explored dispositional, or inherent, mindfulness, rather than the effectiveness of mindfulness training. Specifically, the study researched if:

  • higher observational characteristics would predict improved perceptual ability
  • higher nonreactivity scores will relate to improved cognitive flexibility
  • actiing with awareness and describing facets would not impact cognitive capabilities

Unfortunately the study was unable to reproduce the mindfulness work of previous studies. The study also found that nonreactivity, not observability, was a better determinant of perceptual abilities. Further, none of the five facets of mindfulness was associated with cognitive flexibility. While additional research should be performed, the connection between mindfulness and cognitive performance and enhancement looks tenuous at best.