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Mindfulness Training Protects Working Memory in Stressed Reservists

18 Oct

Researchers from the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, investigated the impact of mindfulness training (MT) on working memory capacity (WMC) and affective experience of reservists during their high-stress, pre-deployment phase.  They hypothesized that MT may bolster working memory and mitigate the deleterious effects of high stress.  (Working memory capacity is used in managing cognitive demands and regulating emotions.  High levels of stress may deplete it, leading to cognitive failures and emotional disturbances.)

The study recruited 2 military cohorts during the high-stress pre-deployment interval, and provided MT to 1 group (MT, n = 31) but not the other group (military control group, MC, n = 17). Additionally, the study used another control group of civilians (n = 12) for comparison.

The MT intervention group attended an 8-week mindfulness training course and logged the amount of out-of-class time spent practicing formal mindfulness exercises. The operation span task was used to index working memory capacity at 2 testing sessions, before and after the MT course.

Although working memory remained stable over time in the civilian controls, it degraded in the military control group.  In the mindfulness group, WMC decreased over time in those with low MT practice time, but increased in those with high practice time.

Higher MT practice time also corresponded to lower levels of negative affect and higher levels of positive affect (measured by the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule).
The relationship between practice time and negative, but not positive, affect was mediated by WMC, indicating that MT-related improvements in WMC may support some but not all of MT's salutary effects.
Nonetheless, these findings suggest that sufficient MT practice may protect against functional impairments associated with high-stress contexts. Further testing is indicated.

Citation:  Jha AP, Stanley EA, Kiyonaga A, Wong L, Gelfand L. Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity and affective experience. Emotion. 2010 Feb;10 (1):pages 54-64. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Belleruth Naparstek

Psychotherapist, author and guided imagery pioneer Belleruth Naparstek is the creator of the popular Health Journeys guided imagery audio series. Her latest book on imagery and posttraumatic stress, Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal (Bantam Dell), won the Spirituality & Health Top 50 Books Award