Implicit Learning Does Not Always Come From Mindful Individuals
November 14, 2013

Implicit Learning Does Not Always Come From Mindful Individuals

Rebekah Eliason for – Your Universe Online

People assume that being mindful would be helpful in preventing bad habits, but unfortunately, it also inhibits the formation of good ones. A new study from Georgetown University investigates the impact of implicit learning. At first glance, their discoveries seem counterintuitive.

Many people assume that mindful individuals would score higher when testing the ability to recognize patterns among dots than distracted people. Surprisingly, researchers discovered the opposite to be true. Participants who scored low on the mindfulness scale performed much better on the implicit learning test, which is learning that occurs when a person is unaware.

Lead author Chelsea Stillman noted that after considering the fact that behavioral and neuroimaging studies indicate that mindfulness possibly diminishes the automatic learning processes, this outcome may not be as surprising. The automatic learning process refers to the development of positive and negative habits. Stillman is a psychology PhD student who works in the Cognitive Aging Laboratory that is led by the senior investigator of the study, Darlene Howard, Ph.D. who works in the Cognitive Aging Lab.

The purpose of the study was to discover how individual differences in mindfulness are linked to implicit learning. “Our theory is that one learns habits — good or bad — implicitly, without thinking about them,” Stillman says. “We wanted to see if mindfulness impeded implicit learning.”

Participants came from two samples of adults who initially completed a test gauging mindfulness as a character trait. Afterwards one of two sequence learning tasks was completed to measure implicit learning. These varied between the alternating serial reaction time task and the triplet-learning task. Each task consisted of circles on a screen where participants were instructed to respond to the location of certain colored circles. The purpose of these tests was to discover the ability of participants to learn complex, probabilistic patterns. The test takers were unaware of the purpose of each test.

Researchers discovered that individuals with low mindfulness levels usually learn more and exhibited reaction times that were quicker in targeting events occurring more often in a context of preceding events, than in  those occurring less often.

“The very fact of paying too much attention or being too aware of stimuli coming up in these tests might actually inhibit implicit learning," Stillman says. "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.” This study will be presented at Neuroscience 2013 which is the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.