Mindfulness meditation – the practice of paying attention on purpose to the present moment – has garnered interest in improving a host of mental health traits, including attention and emotion regulation. But how do these practices affect a person’s impulsive behavior, like giving in to that second round of dessert?
New research from the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison published in the journal Scientific Reports suggests that mindfulness training in experienced meditators as well as in people new to meditation does not lower certain aspects of impulsivity.
“Impulsivity is complicated, and it can arise from any number of more fundamental underlying deficits,” says Cole Korponay, a Center for Healthy Minds collaborator who led the analysis as a graduate student and is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University’s McLean Hospital. “Someone could display impulsive behavior because they have trouble regulating their attention, or trouble inhibiting their motor responses, or trouble with long-term planning or waiting.”
What’s important, Korponay says, is acknowledging that while some aspects of impulsivity relate to attentional difficulties and might be positively affected by mindfulness, new evidence suggests that aspects of impulsivity not associated with attention aren’t improved by mindfulness training, at least in this recent study of healthy adults.
“We were surprised because, given its emphasis on remaining nonreactive and observant towards one's emotions and thoughts, we expected mindfulness training to be associated with reduced impulsivity in people new to the practice as well as in experienced meditators,” he says. “We discovered that neither short-term nor long-term meditation appears to be effective for reducing impulsivity related to motor control and planning capacities.”