Mind The Gap?

This column originally appeared in The Observer / The Guardian online

Today’s quiz looks at your ability to achieve the state known as mindfulness, and to harness one of its potential benefits. So, for just a few minutes, close your eyes and focus attention on your breathing. Do this without judgment, and certainly don’t try to change your breathing (or, on the other hand, to stop it from changing). Just be aware of your breathing; focus your mind on your breath as it goes in and out…in and out.

Done? Now, many benefits have been claimed for mindfulness, including improved memory, so let’s see if this is the case for you. Study the following list of words for about 1½ seconds each: garbage, waste, disposal, broom, trash, heap, dump, tip, refuse, sack, junk, rubbish, bag, recycle. Now, put this column to one side, take out a blank piece of paper and list as many of these words as possible. How did you get on? Compare your list with the original to find out.


Photo via Flick user Darragh O Connor


Answer: Most people get around 7 correct, whether they do the mindfulness training or not. That’s right, I was pulling you leg about it improving your memory. Oh, and one more thing, did you write the word bin? When this study was done under controlled conditions, mindfulness not only failed to improve memory, but actually increased the likelihood of a false memory: “recalling” a word that was not actually in the original list. Presumably this happens because mindfulness encourages judgment-free thinking. So, if the word bin popped into your mind (which is quite likely, given all the related words), the mindfulness training makes you less likely to say to yourself “hold on, did I actually see that word?”. So if you’re a fan of mindfulness training, this study should certainly give you something to think about – judgmentally.


Wilson, B. M., Mickes, L., Stolarz-Fantino, S., Evrard, M., & Fantino, E. (2015). Increased False-Memory Susceptibility After Mindfulness Meditation. Psychological Science26(10), 1567-1573.

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