Home > Attention > Don’t just do something — sit there! A cognitive perspective on how meditation and mindfulness support mental wellbeing

Don’t just do something — sit there! A cognitive perspective on how meditation and mindfulness support mental wellbeing


I remember my first time attending one of Jing Ye’s meditation sessions in the Rose Chapel at Colby. The idea of meditation had always been appealing to me; it sounded “new age” and profound. In reality, meditation is a lot different from what most people imagine. During my first attempt, my irritation grew as the dull aching in my lower back intensified and the sensation of pins and needles spread through my crossed legs. Not to mention the frog-like noises coming from the guy sitting next to me as he swallowed down saliva. Couldn’t he just stop that? Sitting there with eyes closed, I resorted to generating a to-do list in my head – no one would know I was cheating. Jing had told us to be present and aware of our body’s sensations and emotions in a nonjudgmental manner, but being asked to sit still left me with no choice but to confront the internal chaos that I was usually too busy to notice.

Why is meditation and mindfulness so difficult in this day and age? Our different environments can provide us with many hints. Be observant of the behaviors of others on your next walk to a class or meeting. Do you see anyone texting? Walking is thought to be a seemingly automatic, or unconscious, InTheMomentHereactivity that requires little mental exertion; yet pay close attention to how well these people can walk while trying to text on their phones. Some of these people are comparable to drunk drivers, aimlessly zigzagging on the paved paths while they unknowingly exert most of their attentional resources on texting. It would be a waste of time to merely walk somewhere… wouldn’t it? That doesn’t sound too productive. This mentality – this fixation on multitasking and overstimulation – can be seen in today’s generations because of our technology-driven culture (Carrier et al., 2009). All of our hyperactive environments make it hard to focus on just one thing at a time. When we’re asked to sit with ourselves in silence, as with mindfulness meditation, we panic. We feel uneasy without stimulation or an idea to grapple with. Just because meditation feels unnatural doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing though.

Whereas the concept of long-term meditation practice sounds like it could be an effective method for increasing mental wellbeing (for those with enough patience and persistence), how can we know for sure? Who’s to say that a fast-paced life is even a bad thing? The answer to this, and many other questions, can be found through empirical research and experimentation. By examining the Buddhist practice of mindfulness and meditation through the lens of western psychological theory, certain cognitive psychologists hope to provide respectable evidence for its effectiveness.

In recent years, researchers have devised clear definitions of mindfulness and mental wellbeing – as well as methods to measure how mindful someone is. According to Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, world-renowned founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic, meditation can be thought of as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994) According to Kabat-Zinn, we can practice mindfulness at any point in our day – such as when we are eating, talking with a friend, or even tying our shoes. No moment is off limits. In order to experimentally quantify how mindful a person is, the Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills (KIMS) is commonly used. The KIMS questionnaire measures four different mindfulness abilities: Observing (being able to notice or attend to internal thoughts/sensations as well as environmental stimuli), describing (being able to identify or label something in a non-judgmental manner), acting with awareness (being “in the moment” and engaged with the task at hand), and accepting without judgment (being able to let reality be the way it is without trying to change or avoid it).

Just like mindfulness, wellbeing can be broken up into four categories. The four types of mental balance that lead to wellbeing are: conation (motivation/intention), attention, cognition, and affect/emotion (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006). Conation is the ability to commit oneself to specific goals to attain happiness (for oneself or another person), attention is the ability to sustain controlled focus on a chosen item, cognition is the ability to engage with the world without distorting it through judgment or assumptions, and affect/emotion is the ability to self-regulate mood and remain emotionally stable. Although conation and affect/emotion are important for wellbeing, cognitive psychologists are most interested in determining how mindfulness meditation influences attention and cognition abilities.

To better understand the cognitive and attentional balance components of mental wellbeing, some researchers measure what is referred to as cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility can be thought of as the ability to adapt to unexpected situations, to quickly switch back and forth between ideas, and to consider multiple ideas in one moment (Cañas, Quesada, Antolí, & Fajardo, 2003). You may be wondering: how does cognitive flexibility even relate to being a happier and healthier person? Specifically, how does the idea of cognitive flexibility connect to mindfulness and wellbeing? According to Moore and Malinowski, our wellbeing is influenced by perceived attitudes and emotions; so if we are actively present and adaptable, then we are better able to recognize how our emotions and moods are being impacted by different contexts. This awareness makes our mood more stable and resilient to changes in environmental conditions…which is a good thing! Mindfulness and meditation theoretically work on strengthening one’s ability to experience life in the present moment (Kabat-Zinn, 2003) – So wouldn’t it make sense that cognitive flexibility and meditation are linked?

Through an experimental approach, Moore and Malinowski (2009) investigated how meditation practice and self-reported mindfulness connected to this concept of cognitive flexibility. The researchers recruited two types of participants: those who had been practicing mindfulness meditation at a local Buddhist center, and those who were non-meditators. Why did they need to test non-meditators in the first place? This control group, as it’s usually called, is important because they show the behaviors of the “typical person.” The level of someone’s cognitive flexibility is only relative to the general population. Other than the participants’ differences in mindfulness and meditation practice, Moore and Malinowski wanted the two groups to be as similar as possible. The mean ages were approximately the same (mean age Buddhists: 28.0 years, controls: 27.5 years) and they had slept for approximately the same length of time the night before (mean sleep Buddhists: 8.0 hours, mean sleep controls: 7.9 years). After all, there’s a good chance that a tired person is not going to do so well on an attention test. (Click here and here to read posts on sleep and memory).

First, all participants filled out the Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills questionnaire. Each of the 36 items on the questionnaire were formatted as statements that participants scored on a 1-5 scale (1 being “never or very rarely true”, 5 being “very often or always true.”) An example of a question that measured observing was: “I notice changes in my body, such as whether my breathing slows down or speeds up.” The researchers expected meditators to produce overall higher scores of mindfulness on the KIMS questionnaire, which they did.

To quantify cognitive flexibility, participants completed the Stroop task and the d2-test of attention. In the infamous Stroop task, participants are given a list of words – with the words printed in various primary colors (see the figure to the right). They are asked to go down the list and say the color that each stroop-effectword is written in. Sounds easy, right? Here’s the catch: some lists of words are printed in colors that match the word (e.g. red), some words are neutral and don’t relate to a color (e.g. dog) and some words are printed in colors that don’t match the word (e.g. red). The challenge comes when naming the color in the incompatible condition because the participant has to inhibit his/her natural reaction; it’s pretty hard to look at a word without reading it, right? This means more attentional control is needed. People with higher levels of cognitive flexibility should show quicker reaction times and more accuracy in this condition than the “average person.” The other task that I mentioned, the d2-test of attention, is very similar to the Stroop task. All you need to know about this test is that it measures how well participants are able to focus on a task without letting surrounding distractors influence their reaction time and accuracy.

The results on these tests showed that participants who meditated and had high levels of mindfulness had better cognitive flexibility and attentional performance. Specifically, those with higher ratings on the acting with awareness and observing questions of the KIMS questionnaire also had better Stroop task and d2-test outcomes. Because the Stroop task tests how well people can control mental processes that are typically automatic (i.e., controlling the natural urge to read the word), it is likely that meditation and mindfulness can strengthen one’s ability to actively direct attention. And by being able to focus your attention, you can be more conscious of your emotional state and less preoccupied with the chaos surrounding you!

So, give some thought to mindfulness and meditation the next time you’re in the middle of a stressful week. If the idea of meditation is intimidating or unappealing to you, just remember that being more mindful throughout your day will also flex your “cognitive muscles.” In other words: get off that phone and actively engage with your world!



Baer, R. A., Smith, G. T., & Allen, K. B. (2004). Assessment of Mindfulness by Self-Report: The Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills. Assessment11(3), 191-206.

Cañas, J. J., Quesada, J. F., Antolí, A., & Fajardo, I. (2003). Cognitive flexibility and adaptability to environmental changes in dynamic complex problem-solving tasks. Ergonomics, 46(5), 482–501.

Carrier, L., Cheever, N. A., Rosen, L. D., Benitez, S., & Chang, J. (2009). Multitasking across generations: Multitasking choices and difficulty ratings in three generations of Americans. Computers In Human Behavior25(2), 483-489.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York, NY: Hyperion.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144–156.

Moore , A. Malinowski , P. (2009). Meditation, mindfulness, and cognitive flexibility. Consciousness and Cognition, 18, 176-186.

Wallace, B. A., & Shapiro, S. (2006). Mental balance and well-being: Building bridges between Buddhism and western psychology. American Psychologist, 61(7), 690–701.

To read the original article, click here


  1. May 5th, 2014 at 20:55 | #1

    I really connected to your introduction because my first time meditating was also at Colby, and the same thoughts going through your head were also circulating through mine. Early this semester, we learned that we have sensory stores because we are continuously receiving large amounts of information from the environment at any given time. Therefore, I was doubtful that I would be able to shut out distracting incoming information during an hour of just sitting.
    When the group began to meditate, I instantaneously began reviewing chemistry concepts in my head in preparation of the test I had after the meditation session. I felt like I was failing at being present in the moment. Fifteen minutes into the session, I felt uncomfortable from sitting too long, causing me to shift my body position and attempt to meditate again. Although I had previously doubted my ability to meditate, I found myself feeling calm yet aware and mindful. I left the meditation session feeling great and felt prepared for my test although I hadn’t spent the hour before reviewing concepts like I usually do.
    Your blog reminded me of that experience and the findings of this paper motivated me to do some research of the more cognitive benefits of meditation. One really cool study I wanted to share with everyone was conducted by Mrazek et al. (2013). In the study, the researchers aimed to discover whether mindfulness training was more effective in improving reading-comprehension and working memory capacity compared to a control training (a nutrition class). Overall, the researchers found that undergraduate students who attended a two-week meditation class performed better on a GRE reading-comprehension test and working memory capacity task compared to the students who attended the nutrition class. This is because the mediation students reduced mind wandering whereas the control students were more likely to be distracted. This study ties in nicely with your post because it provides additional evidence that meditation can be beneficial towards attention. I really enjoyed reading your post!

  2. May 6th, 2014 at 08:54 | #2

    I was particularly interested in your post because we often discuss the beneficial physiological properties of mindfulness meditation in my Health Psychology collaborative seminar. Mindfulness meditation is associated with a host of positive physiological effects, including decreased heart rate and blood pressure. Mindfulness meditation also decreases alcohol related problems by helping people to manage stress as seen in Bodenlos, Noonan, & Wells (2013). Similarly, Ostafin, Wessel, & Kassman (2013) found that mindfulness and executive control were able to decrease preoccupation with alcohol related thoughts and weakened the relationship between alcohol associations and preoccupation. So it does not surprise me that mindfulness meditation is also correlated with cognitive flexibility and attentional performance. I wonder though, whether or not mindfulness meditation is an effective intervention in individuals who frequently ruminate and have lower levels of attentional abilities at baseline. I remember my first time attempting to do mindfulness meditation, and how I spent the majority of my time in the rose chapel thinking that I could be doing homework or sleeping. Is mindfulness meditation beneficial even for those people who are not enjoying it? Is it beneficial for people who dislike doing it? Would people who are forced to go to mindfulness meditation also experience an increase in cognitive flexibility and attentional abilities? I wonder whether the mechanism of action for mindfulness meditation is the act of meditating, or simply the act of taking an hour or two to relax? Compelling article and interesting post.

  3. Falcon
    October 6th, 2014 at 23:39 | #3

    This article really spoke to me mainly because I have been contemplating on going to the meditation sessions for weeks now. Every time I get an email about the sessions, I never end up going. It’s no surprise that my reason is that I have to much work.

    The fact that meditation could improve one’s attentional performance is a new and developing idea. I find it very interesting how using the Stroop task can measure cognitive flexibility and attention. When doing the Stroop task, one’s attentional control is what’s being tested. If the stimulus is incongruent (incompatible), one takes a quick second to suppress the automatic response of saying the word and produce the more controlled response of saying the color of the word. This takes a lot of attentional control. Word naming is more automatic whereas color naming is more algorithmic. In a way, we have to know the names of colors before we can retrieve that from our memory. This takes more time and effort. If a person is thinking about her math exam, geology paper and soccer practice at the same time, she will be more likely to make a mistake or take longer to respond in the Stroop task. It makes sense if a person can focus more (through meditation) and is calmer; one will be in better control of naming the color of the word faster and more efficiently.

    In our technology-filled lives, I feel that we rarely have time to ourselves to think and reflect. We’re constantly doing multiple things at a time and not focusing. We might think that we are, but our attentional resources are being distributed and our attention is being switched from task to task. Dividing attention is like multitasking. We’re encouraged not to do it frequently but many people do it anyway. Personally, I think it depends on the person. One should know what works and doesn’t work when it comes to studying.

    I’m curious as to how much meditation can improve one’s attentional performance and cognitive flexibility. What if someone is already very focused and can get to work right away? Would going to meditation help them at all? Also, is it really the meditation that’s helping or just simply taking a break from work?

    Anyway, I think after reading this blog post I’m going to check out the meditation sessions . I’m sure it will benefit both physically and mentally.

  4. October 8th, 2014 at 22:34 | #4

    I found this blog very interesting and insightful. I took Prof. Joe Atkins’ class Metacognition last fall and we talked briefly about meditation and its benefits. Jing Ye actually came to a class and talked to us about it. I remember her saying that every time she sees a squirrel around campus, it makes her happy because they are so cute. I definitely fall into the trap of using my phone while I walk around campus. There always seems to be some email I need to respond to or something I need to check. I’ve been more cognizant of this lately and have been trying to limit my phone usage, especially while walking around campus. It can be easy to forget what a beautiful campus we have here and how nice it is in the fall.
    I knew that meditation was good for the mind and self-being but I was unaware of the enhanced cognitive flexibility and attentional performance that meditation brings. It makes sense when thinking about it. If you are able to shut out all other stimuli and focus on yourself while meditating, then being able to identify the color of a word (even the word of another color) should be an easier task. This blog reminded me how important it is to listen to yourself and enjoy the things around you, not just the screen in your palm.

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