Mindfulness Impedes Implicit Learning, but May Enhance Explicit Learning

Chelsea Stillman

Chelsea Stillman

People typically develop habits without consciously and “mindfully” thinking about them, and habits often develop through “implicit” or unconscious learning.
Moreover, the trait of mindfulness can interfere with habit formation and pattern recognition, according to Georgetown’s Chelsea Stillman, Alyssa M. Coffin, James H. Howard and Darlene Howard.

Chelsea Stillman-Triplet Learning TaskMany recent studies linking positive outcomes to increased mindfulness, so this caveat may be surprising.

James Howard

James Howard

Adult volunteers completed an inventory that assessed their degree of mindfulness as a character trait rather than as a transient state.
They also completed either an alternating serial reaction time task or a triplet-learning task using colored circles to assess their ability to learn complex, probabilistic patterns.

Darlene Howard

Darlene Howard

Those who scored high on trait mindfulness were less effective in detecting and learning the patterns than those with lower mindfulness scores.

Stillman concluded that high attention and awareness of stimuli may inhibit implicit learning, suggesting many questions about situations in which mindfulness is most effective.

Previous blog posts noted that mind wandering may have other virtues, like enabling innovative problems solving.

Travis Proulx

Travis Proulx

Implicit learning, such as required to develop habits, is helped by “unrelated meaning threats” in addition to mindlessness, according to Tilburg University’s Travis Proulx and Steven J. Heine of University of British Columbia.

They provided volunteers with an “unrelated meaning threat” in a short story by Franz Kafka or in a task requiring participants to “argue against one’s own self-unity.” Other participants received no “unrelated meaning threat” to serve as a comparison group.

Steven Heine

Steven Heine

Those who received the threat showed increased detection of patterns within letter strings and better performance on a artificial-grammar learning task, in which they detected a novel pattern embedded in the letter strings.

Proulx and Heine concluded that people may use association patterns unrelated to the original meaning threat when trying to maintain meaning, which they called the “meaning-maintenance model.

Gavriel Solomon

Gavriel Solomon

Differing findings were reported by University of Haifa’s Gavriel Solomon and Tamar Globerson of Tel Aviv University, who found that mindfulness may augment explicit rather than implicit learning.
They argued that
effortful, volitional mindful attention is a key contributor to learning and bridging “the know-doing gap,” described by Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer, supporting recent “pro-mindfulness” findings.

Jeffrey Pfeffer

Jeffrey Pfeffer

-*How do you use mindfulness and mindlessness to enhance learning and creative problem solving?

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