Mindfulness Impairs the Formation of Automatic Habits
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“The very fact of paying too much attention or being too aware of stimuli coming up in these tests might actually inhibit implicit learning. That suggests that 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
When people think of learning they’re usually visualizing learning information like historical facts, people’s names, mathematical formulas, etc. This is called explicit memory. 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. 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, mindfulness appears to disrupt implicit learning. In today’s Research News article “Task-Related Functional Connectivity of the Caudate Mediates the Association Between Trait Mindfulness and Implicit Learning in Older Adults.” See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4955759/, Stillman and colleagues examine this disruptive effect of mindfulness and the neural systems responsible.
They recruited a group of healthy young adults (aged 18-37 years) and a group of healthy older adults (aged 60-90 years). They were measured for mindfulness and they completed an established implicit learning task. The task, Triplets Learning Task, involves a presentation of three stimuli with, unbeknownst to the participant, some triplets occurring more frequently than others. In general, people learn to respond to the more frequent triplets faster without awareness that there’s any difference between sets. In other words, they learn implicitly. While they were performing this task, their brains were scanned with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (f-MRI).
The researchers found that for the younger group, there was no significant relationship between mindfulness and implicit learning. On the other hand, the older group had a significant relationship between mindfulness and implicit learning with the higher the mindfulness score, the lower the score on the Triplets Learning Task. Hence, mindfulness disrupted implicit learning in older but not younger participants.
Investigating the brain scans of this older group, they found that the degree of relationship between mindfulness and implicit learning was related to the level of connectivity between the Caudate Nucleus and the Medial Temporal Lobe, a system previously shown to be associated with implicit learning. In particular, the greater the connectivity the better the implicit learning, but the greater the mindfulness, the lower the connectivity. A further mediational analysis indicated that the negative influence of mindfulness on implicit learning was mediated by its negative effect on the connectivity. In other words, mindfulness changed the brain which resulted in disruption of implicit learning.
These are complicated findings. But, they are particularly interesting as they suggest that mindfulness effects the brain and this produces the behavioral effects. The results suggest that the disruptive influence of mindfulness on implicit learning occurs primarily in older adults and that it is mediated by mindfulness’ negative influence on the functional connectivity of the Caudate Nucleus with the Medial Temporal Lobe. It is known that there is deterioration in the Caudate Nucleus and the Medial Temporal Lobe with aging. It is possible, then, that mindfulness can only exert its disruptive effects when there is an already weakened Caudate Nucleus – Medial Temporal Lobe system present.
It is interesting that mindfulness did not disrupt implicit learning in the younger participants. This might explain why mindfulness training improves athletic performance. Athletes are generally young and the lack of disruption of implicit learning by mindfulness allows mindfulness to produce psychological enhancements that improve performance. This might not be true for older athletes.
Regardless, it is clear that mindfulness disrupts the establishment of automatic unconscious habits in older adults as a result of its negative effects on the interaction of two brain areas, Caudate Nucleus and the Medial Temporal Lobe.
“people reporting low on the mindfulness scale tended to learn more—their reaction times were quicker in targeting events that occurred more often within a context of preceding events than those that occurred less often.” – Georgetown University Medical Center
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Stillman, C. M., You, X., Seaman, K. L., Vaidya, C. J., Howard, J. H., & Howard, D. V. (2016). Task-Related Functional Connectivity of the Caudate Mediates the Association Between Trait Mindfulness and Implicit Learning In Older Adults. Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, 16(4), 736–753. http://doi.org/10.3758/s13415-016-0427-2
Accumulating evidence shows a positive relationship between mindfulness and explicit cognitive functioning, i.e., that which occurs with conscious intent and awareness. However, recent evidence suggests that there may be a negative relationship between mindfulness and implicit types of learning, or those that occur without conscious awareness or intent. Here we examined the neural mechanisms underlying the recently reported negative relationship between dispositional mindfulness and implicit probabilistic sequence learning in both younger and older adults. We tested the hypothesis that the relationship is mediated by communication, or functional connectivity, of brain regions once traditionally considered to be central to dissociable learning systems: the caudate, medial temporal lobe (MTL), and prefrontal cortex (PFC). We first replicated the negative relationship between mindfulness and implicit learning in a sample of healthy older adults (60–90 years old) who completed three event-related runs of an implicit sequence learning task. Then, using a seed-based connectivity approach, we identified task-related connectivity associated with individual differences in both learning and mindfulness. The main finding was that caudate-MTL connectivity (bilaterally) was positively correlated with learning and negatively correlated with mindfulness. Further, the strength of task-related connectivity between these regions mediated the negative relationship between mindfulness and learning. This pattern of results was limited to the older adults. Thus, at least in healthy older adults, the functional communication between two interactive learning-relevant systems can account for the relationship between mindfulness and implicit probabilistic sequence learning.