Learn Less Implicitly with Mindfulness

“The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing.” ― Jon Kabat-Zinn

When people think of learning they’re usually visualizing learning information like historical facts, peoples names, mathematical formulas, etc. But, there’s another very important form of learning, called implicit learning, which is learning how to perform automatic tasks rapidly and efficiently. Things like riding a bike, playing a musical instrument, serving a tennis ball and tying your shoelaces all require implicit learning and memory.

Implicit learning requires the person to actually perform and practice a task to master it. Many athletic skills fall into this category. The skills are mastered with repetition so that they can be performed instinctively and mindlessly when needed. Once you’ve mastered hitting a ball with a bat you don’t have to think about the actual swing. You only need to make the decision to swing or not; the automatic system takes over from there. This is very effective. In fact athletes will tell you that if they think too much about what they’re doing they won’t do it as well.

Implicit learning also involves most mundane tasks that we perform constantly throughout our day. Walking, producing speech, even typing this sentence on a keyboard all involve implicitly learned skills. So, implicit learning is important and helps to reduce the cognitive load on our nervous system for everyday behaviors. We don’t have the think about them so we can devote our brain capacity to higher level thoughts and ideas.

It has been demonstrated that mindfulness helps with explicit learning, such as academic material. For example mindfulness training can improve college entrance exam scores in students. But, does mindfulness also help with implicit learning? In today’s Research News article “Dispositional mindfulness is associated with reduced implicit learning”



Stillman and colleagues tackle this very question; investigating the relationship between mindfulness and implicit learning.

They found that mindfulness appeared to interfere with implicit learning, the higher the level of mindfulness the lower the score on implicit learning tasks. But, mindfulness was associated with positive outcomes such as lower depression, better overall health, episodic memory and inhibitory control. So, mindfulness appears to have many very positive effects but there appears to be a tradeoff. As the old saying goes ‘you don’t get something for nothing’. The benefits occur but there’s also a cost, lower ability for implicit learning.

To some extent this result makes sense. Implicit learning involves learning to perform an action without attention. Mindfulness involves learning to pay attention. So, the two would appear to be incompatible. Being better at paying attention in the present moment makes it more difficult to learn to not pay attention and learn implicitly.

There actually may be an upside to mindfulness interfering with implicit learning. There are a number of behaviors that we learn implicitly that we might call ‘bad habits.’ Mindfulness may interfere with the development with these also. Developing an addiction is a good example. It involves learning implicitly a myriad of behaviors elicited by certain environmental conditions. Interfering with implicit learning might interfere with acquiring an addiction. In fact, it has been shown that mindfulness training helps with kicking a bad habit, getting rid of an addiction.

So, be mindful, the plusses outweigh the minuses. You might not be as good at mastering an athletic skill, but your life will be much better in most other ways.

“Mindfulness may help prevent formation of automatic habits — which is done through implicit learning — because a mindful person is aware of what they are doing.” – Chelsea Stillman

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

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