Meditation could make you less error-prone, scientists say

Feeling zen could lead to fewer mistakes: Twenty minutes of meditation a day boosts brain activity, study finds

  • Participants in a study were put through computer tests after meditation 
  • Researchers found an increase in brain activity linked to error recognition
  • But they did not find this improved the participants’ actual performance 

Just twenty minutes of meditation could help you stop making mistakes, according to a study. 

Scientists say the trendy practice, favoured by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, makes people more aware of their errors.   

Michigan State University experts scanned the brains of participants while they took a computer test. Half had been through one session of meditation.

They discovered an increase in brain signals known to be linked to error recognition among the meditation group, suggesting volunteers were quicker to realise they had made a mistake.

However, the researchers did not find any evidence this improved performance. 

They said the way the brain lit up after meditation was ‘amazing’, and now plan to trial whether the technique can impact behaviour in the long-term.  

Twenty minutes of meditation, practiced by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow (pictured) could help you stop making mistakes, scientists say 

Dr Jason Moser, psychologist and study co-author, said: ‘These findings are a strong demonstration of what just 20 minutes of meditation can do to enhance the brain’s ability to detect and pay attention to mistakes.

‘It makes us feel more confident in what mindfulness meditation might really be capable of for performance and daily functioning right there in the moment.’

The research, published in Brain Sciences, tested a type of mediation called ‘open monitoring meditation’.

It focuses on feelings, thoughts or sensations as they unfold in one’s mind and body. Normally, meditation is focused on breathing.

Jeff Lin, MSU psychology doctoral candidate and study co-author, said: ‘Some forms of meditation have you focus on a single object, commonly your breath.

‘But open monitoring meditation is a bit different. It has you tune inward and pay attention to everything going on in your mind and body. 

‘The goal is to sit quietly and pay close attention to where the mind travels without getting too caught up in the scenery.’

More than 200 participants were recruited to test how open monitoring meditation altered how people detect and respond to errors.

Half of the participants, who had never meditated before, were taken through a 20-minute open monitoring meditation exercise.

WHAT IS ‘OPEN MONITORING MEDITATION’? 

The study at Michigan State University tested ‘open monitoring mediation’.

Jeff Lin, MSU psychology doctoral candidate and study co-author, said: ‘The goal is to sit quietly and pay close attention to where the mind travels without getting too caught up in the scenery.’ 

During this meditation, a person is aware of their thoughts and feelings, and tries to understand them without an attachment or judgement.  

The person becomes a meditator and scientific observer of the workings of their own mind.

It raises the question of how can someone listening to their own voice be doing anything other than ‘thinking’?

Open monitoring mediation is different to the common focused attention meditation in that it doesn’t have a specific target of focus, such as the breath.

The two forms of meditation fall under the same umbrella of ‘mindfulness mediation’, but are thought to fire up different pathways in the brain. 

Generally, meditation can be traced back to as early as 5000BC.

It is associated with some philosophies and religions but is practiced as a secular, stress-relieving activity more and more.

At the same time, the researchers measured brain activity through an electroencephalography, or EEG. 

Then, all of the participants completed a test on a computer. A set of arrows would appear on a screen and the participants needed to select the correct answer to complete a pattern within milliseconds.

Mr Lin said: ‘The EEG can measure brain activity at the millisecond level, so we got precise measures of neural activity right after mistakes compared to correct responses. 

‘A certain neural signal occurs about half a second after an error called the error positivity, which is linked to conscious error recognition.’

The team found that the strength of this signal was increased in the meditators, compared to the control group who had not meditated.

The increase in brain activity didn’t have immediate improvements to actual task performance. 

The largest study of its kind to date, it supports the theory that different forms of meditation can cause a variety of changes in the way the brain works.

Mr Lin said that there is little research about how open monitoring meditation impacts error recognition. 

And while meditation and mindfulness have gained mainstream interest in recent years, Mr Lin is among a relatively small group of researchers delving into its effect on the brain. 

He said: ‘People’s interest in meditation and mindfulness is outpacing what science can prove in terms of effects and benefits.

‘But it’s amazing to me that we were able to see how one session of a guided meditation can produce changes to brain activity in non-meditators.’

The next phase of research, which will be larger, will determine whether changes in brain activity can translate to behavioural changes in the long-run.

Dr Lin said: ‘It’s great to see the public’s enthusiasm for mindfulness, but there’s still plenty of work from a scientific perspective to be done to understand the benefits it can have, and equally importantly, how it actually works.

‘It’s time we start looking at it through a more rigorous lens.’

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