Mindfulness, Working Memory Capacity and EQ

This month’s edition of the psychological journal Emotion features a number of entirely new studies on the effects of mindfulness meditation on both working memory capacity (our mental workspace) and our ability to manage our emotions – to be emotionally intelligent. The basic idea is that working memory is used not just to manage our cognitive resources to help with fluid intelligence but also to regulate our emotions better.  This connection between working memory and emotion is breaking news. Before summarizing the results, here is some background on mindfulness meditation – what it is, and what is known about it. You’ll be surprised about its benefits.

What is mindfulness?

  • Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.
  • Mindfulness, a state of alertness in which the mind does not get caught up in thoughts, emotions, desires or sensations, but lets them come and go, much like watching a river flow by.
  • Mindfulness is nonjudgmental observation: It is that ability of the mind to observe without criticism. When mindful, one sees things without condemnation or judgment. One does not decide and does not judge. One just observes.
  • Mindfulness is non-egotistic alertness. It takes place without reference to self. With mindfulness one sees all phenomena without references to concepts like “me,” “my,” or “mine.” decide and does not judge. One just observes.
  • Mindfulness is cultivated through meditation. It is a practice.

Benefits of mindfulness

Mindfulness meditation practice can be transformative. It has been shown scientifically to have diverse and far-reaching impacts, and has the potential to transform the way we respond to life events.

  • It reduces stress and negative emotional reactivity.
  • It reduces psychopathology.
  • It heightens attention and awareness.
  • It enables seeing opportunities for open, spontaneous action in the world, free from egoism

Mindfulness in society

Mindfulness meditation is becoming widely recognized as an effective tool  for mental and physical health. For example in the States, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is financing more than 50 studies testing mindfulness techniques – up from 3 in the year 2000 – to help relieve stress, soothe addictive cravings, improve attention, lift despair.

Coping with stress

In one study just published in the journal Emotion by Amishi Jha and her colleagues persuaded 48 Marines who were headed to Iraq to participate in their scientific study. During a full eight weeks before deployment, one group of 31 Marines spent two practiced regular mindfulness meditation while another group of 17 men had no mindfulness training.

Jha wanted to know if mindfulness would improve soldiers’ ability to control  emotion by improving working memory capacity. The reasoning behind this was the idea that working memory capacity may not just helps manage information in reasoning and problem solving –  but it might also help manage emotion and keep the brain functioning well under stress. This is a type of emotional intelligence.

The stress of deployment did – as expected – decrease the Marines’ working memory capacity, due to the stress before deployment. But those who practiced mindfulness for longer periods actually saw a significant increase in working memory capacity. Compared with soldiers who didn’t have the training, the ‘mindful’ Marines also experienced more positive moods and fewer negative moods.

Mindfulness & emotional self regulation

Mindfulness could benefit people who are in similar situations to the military – those who require periods of intensive physical, mental and emotional demands on the job, such as firefighters, police officers, other first responders and crisis workers, the researchers say.

But more generally, mindfulness meditation can help shield cognitive functioning  and the exercise of our fluid intelligence under conditions of stress. Let’s face it: life is stressful – whether taking exams, or dealing with cognitive pressures at work! If the meditation is combined with emotional working memory training such as EQPro we have a powerful training combination!


author: Mark Ashton Smith, Ph.D

Dr Ashton Smith obtained his Ph.D. from the joint University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition program. He has held positions in experimental psychology, including a 3 year post at Cambridge University.


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