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Mindfulness and Memory: Cheese or Chocolate Milk?

Updated: Dec 14, 2018

In my late 20's I had a supervisor who used to say: "If my head wasn't attached to my shoulders, I'd even forget it!" I used to think, "What an odd thing to say."  But honestly, now I know exactly what he meant. Some days I think, "If I don't write this down right now, it's going to vanish!" Sometimes I make mnemonics before going to the grocery store, and still end up forgetting what that "c" stood for – was it cheese or chocolate milk? 

We are all forgetful at times, especially when stressed or distracted. Who hasn't forgotten where the car keys are, what we just read, why we entered the kitchen, or two of the five things to get at the drugstore? My daily meditation and mindfulness practice (and it is just that – consistent practice), helps me get clear and calm, and brings about a feeling of contentedness.

What exactly is memory and how important is memory to our everyday life?

There are several types of memory. For example: episodic memory (what happened) rote memory (that poem you can still recite), working or short-term memory (the grocery list) and source memory, which is the ability to remember events as they happened and tell them apart from your imagination or things you simply heard or dreamt about.

Remember when you had to memorize names and dates at school? The kids who were good at memorizing had a distinct advantage. Remembering names, dates, appointments, phone numbers, content, events, and directions are important skills for success at work and for life in general.

The ability to remember changes with age, health, and mental state. And the clarity of memory changes according to what we are trying to accomplish and how important the memory is.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness practice

My current MBSR and mindfulness class just reconvened last Friday after March break, and as the women came together, some of their comments were:

"Oh, what a relief, the sessions aren't over yet. It felt like I've been away too long."

"I need a re-boot."

"I now notice when I'm triggered and am able to be aware of my feelings and how my body reacts and I've remembered my practice."

The key aspect of MBSR training is to explore, on a weekly basis:

  • what triggers us (that is, what we react to with stress or distress),

  • what our reactions are and how we feel, emotionally and physically

  • where does it sit with us (body reaction),how long does the emotional reaction stay with us; and

  • how we can "land in our practice," so we become aware of the trigger and its effects on us

Landing in practice includes various forms of inquiry within oneself as well as awareness of breath, body-scan meditation, formal sitting meditation, walking meditation, mindful moments, daily living mindfulness, as well as mindful communication and mindful eating.

The effects of at least eight weeks of MBSR training on the brain have been studied since the 1970s, and the practice has been found to help reduce stress, improve focus and attention, and decrease pain.

But how do stress reduction and improved focus affect memory?

What science has to say about mindfulness training and memory

There is a proven link between mindfulness and increased gray matter (frontal cortex) where memories arise. Research has shown that health and mental state can be improved by daily lifestyle choices and regular mindfulness practice.

From "Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density" (January 2012):  "The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking."

In another study, reported in the November 2016 Journal of Adolescent Health, students given mindfulness training for four weeks performed much better on memory tasks "They jumped 10 points (from 34 to 44) on a 75-point scale of working memory."

According to several studies reported in Elsevier, thickening of the cerebral cortex occurs because meditation increases the size of blood vessels and the blood flow in the region responsible for higher mental functions such as concentration, learning, and memory.

In the Time Magazine article, "How to Get Smarter, One Breath at a Time," Walter Zimmermann explains how meditation is the basis of his successful consulting business. From the article: "Meditation directly affects the function and structure of the brain, changing it in ways that appear to increase attention span, sharpen focus, and improve memory."

Mindfulness training for everyone

In summary, we may be able to remember large numbers of things in the long run, but only a few are stored in working memory and can be thought about at any one time. Distractions and stress can cause us to lose working memory. Mindfulness training teaches us to focus on the moment and let go of distracting thoughts, thus aiding memory. This is amazing information for everyone – parents, teachers, students – who want to improve performance at work or school and in daily life.

Mindful Changes offers a range of mindfulness classes, courses, workshops and talks that can change the way you work and learn. We are currently registering for our spring workshops for parents and teens at the West Vancouver Community Centre.   

Contact me for more information and check out our Vancouver mindfulness events listings for upcoming events!


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