It takes just 20 minutes of calmly staying in the present moment to change the brain and boost a person’s response to mistakes, one of the biggest studies of meditation so far has found.
But it’s not focusing on the breath — the kind of mindfulness practice most people are familiar with — but a different type of meditation that really made a difference.
“Meditative practice like this is probably a person’s best bet to improve cognitive performance,” co-author Jason Moser, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, told TODAY.
It could possibly boost people’s attention and help them minimize mistakes down the road, added lead author Jeff Lin, an MSU psychology doctoral candidate.
“The chance of us making a similar mistake in the future is largely predicated on our ability to recognize our errors in the present,” Lin said.
“It’s not unreasonable to think that maybe with prolonged meditation practice, it would actually help us be less error-prone in daily life.”
How the brain monitors mistakes
As people go on about their daily lives, their brains are constantly keeping track of their actions so that they can get through the day without making mistakes, hurting themselves and ultimately dying, Moser said.
This system is monitoring basic things like: Did you grab the right keys? Are you walking in the right direction? Did you make the right turn at the traffic lights? The brain is trying to make sure our actions are giving us the results we want.
When people make a mistake, there’s a surge of electrical activity in middle front part of brain about half a second afterwards. It’s basically the mind recognizing, “Hey, I have made a mistake.”
“That brain wave is really indexing how conscious you are of your mistake — how much you’re really making sense of it and using that information going forward,” Moser said.
It turned out 20 minutes of meditation boosted this signal, indicating people were registering their mistakes more deeply, paying more attention to them and recognizing what they were, he noted.
How to do open monitoring meditation
The study, recently published in Brain Sciences, involved open monitoring meditation — described as “taking notice of present-moment feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations in an open, nonjudgmental manner.”
Rather than focusing on the breath, participants were encouraged to be completely open and aware of any sensations and experiences they were having at that moment.
To understand how this practice would impact a person’s ability to respond to mistakes, 206 women — all meditation “novices” who hadn’t done the practice before — were randomly assigned to one of two groups:
- One group listened to a 20-minute guided open monitoring meditation session led by Steve Hickman, a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness.
- The control group listened to an 18-minute TED Talk about how to learn a second language.
Afterwards, both groups performed a simple computerized test designed to measure their ability to pay attention and deal with distractions. When people do this 500 times, they're bound to make mistakes, Lin said.
As they took the distraction test, all of the participants wore caps that measured the electrical activity in their brains.
The results showed women who went through the meditation had a stronger error detection signal in their brains than the other participants. It was “remarkable” to see a measurable effect on brain processing after only a one 20-minute session of meditation, Moser said. The results would likely apply to men, too, he added.
The researchers don’t know how long the effect lasts, but said a consistent practice — perhaps every day — is probably a good idea.
To try it yourself:
Being "mindful" can be an abstract concept for people, so a guided practice may be a better way to go, Moser said.
Try out a free meditation app, or follow this link for the exact same open monitoring meditation session the study participants listened to.
“Give it a shot,” Moser said. “You can at least feel good that the immediate impact of it will be positive – your brain will be processing and paying more attention to things.”