Improve Thought Executive Function with Mindfulness

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“mindfulness training on focusing on the present moment may develop control of attention, or executive function. This enhances capacity for sustained attention, attention switching, and inhibition of elaborative processing, thereby increasing our mastery over the content of our thoughts and actions. . .  this amplifies our ability to self-regulate, allowing us to redirect our attention from rumination and depressogenic thoughts back to the experience of the present moment, thus decreasing negative affect and improving psychological health.” – Richard Chambers


Mindfulness practices such as meditation, yoga, and tai chi/qigong have been shown to have a myriad of positive benefits for the practitioner and they have been shown to alter a large variety of cognitive (thought) processes, such as attentional ability, memory, verbal fluency, critical thinking, learning, analytic thinking, mathematical ability, higher level (meta-cognitive) thinking, and cognitive reappraisal. There have not, however, been direct comparisons made between the practices to establish which may be superior for the improvement of which cognitive processes. In order to optimize the effectiveness of mindfulness practices to improve thinking it is important to determine the effective components of each practice.


In today’s Research News article “What Confucius practiced is good for your mind: Examining the effect of a contemplative practice in Confucian tradition on executive functions.” See:

or see below

Teng and Lien compare the effectiveness of trainings for 4-weeks, twice a week for 90 minutes each, of mindful movements, or meditation, or a no treatment control. The mindful movement practice was termed Body-Mind Axial Awareness (BMAA) practice. It is very similar to tai chi except that the movements are not precisely choreographed and programmed. Chan meditation practice was used. It is very similar to Zen meditation and emphasizes breath following. They measured mindfulness, working memory ability, response inhibition (Stroop task), sustained attention and attentional switching ability.

They found that both the meditation and the mindful movement practices produced significant increases in mindfulness, in particular the observing and acting with awareness facets of mindfulness. They also found that the mindful movement practice produced a significant increase in working memory ability and sustained attention while the meditation training produced a significant increase in attentional switching ability. The groups did not differ in response inhibition ability. Hence, meditation practice appears to improve mindfulness and the ability to switch attention while the mindful movement practice improves mindfulness and working memory.


Increases in mindfulness, especially with the observing and acting with awareness facets, are routinely found with all mindfulness practices. So, these findings are not surprising and do not signal a difference between practices. The mindful movement practice requires continuous sustained attention in order to produce smooth movement sequences, so it makes sense that this practice would produce better sustained attention and therefore reduce mind wandering. This may, in turn, improve working memory ability as it improves sustained attention on the contents of memory, thereby reducing loss from working memory. It is possible that the training in focusing attention in the meditation practice that requires shifting attention back to the breath after mind wandering may be responsible for the improvements in attentional switching seen with meditation practice.


Although the equivalence of the mindful movement practice and the meditation practice was well maintained, one difference would be impossible to make equivalent and that is effects of the practice on the cardiovascular system. Mindful movement practice would be expected to raise heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolic rate while meditation would be expected to reduce them. In addition, the no treatment control is a weak control condition and a light exercise condition practiced over equivalent periods of time would be a much better comparison condition. So, for future research it might be useful to include a light exercise (e.g. walking) control condition.


Regardless improve thought executive function with mindfulness.


“training students in mindfulness techniques improves mental focus, increases academic performance, strengthens ability to emotionally regulate, and supports positive human qualities: kindness, empathy, compassion.” – Ready for School

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies



Study Summary

Teng SC, Lien YW. What Confucius practiced is good for your mind: Examining the effect of a contemplative practice in Confucian tradition on executive functions. Conscious Cogn. 2016 Mar 30;42:204-215. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2016.03.016. [Epub ahead of print]

PMID: 27038245



The short-term training effects on various executive functions (EFs) by a movement-based contemplative practice (MBCP) are examined. Three aspects of EFs (working memory capacity, inhibition, switching) are assessed before and after a month-long 12-h training period using Body-Mind Axial Awareness (BMAA) principles that Confucius followers have practiced for more than 2000years. A mindfulness-based practice (Chan-meditation) and a waiting-list control group served as contrast groups. Our results showed that the BMAA group performed better on the task that measured working memory capacity than did the Chan-meditation and the waiting-list groups after training. In addition, the Chan-meditation groups outperformed the control group on attentional switching, a novel finding for this kind of practice. Our findings not only show a new effect of short-term MBCPs on EFs, but also indicate movement-based and mindfulness-based contemplative practices might benefit development of various aspects of EFs in different ways.


3 thoughts on “Improve Thought Executive Function with Mindfulness

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *