Meditation, mindfulness, and executive control: results from a new EEG study

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It’s not really surprising that meditation might aid in executive
control, since the act of meditation is basically an exercise in
executive control. Take mindfulness, for example, I would say that the
fundamental aspects of mindfulness practice is present moment
and emotional acceptance; practices that easily could be
described as the executive functions inhibition and emotional

What they researchers did

What Teper and Ingzlict wanted to look as was more why meditation is
effective in enhancing executive control, and not so much if it’s
effective. They did so by recruiting from Craigslist and from local
meditations centers; in total they included 20 meditators and 18
non-meditators in their analyses. Their experiment entailed recording
EEG-activity during the Stroop-task. EEG stands for
electroencephalography and it’s a method to measure neural activity by
placing a bunch of electrodes on the scalp of the test subject.
Specifically they wanted to look at the neural correlates of performance
monitoring by looking at something called error-related negativity
(ERN). ERN is a physiological response (as measured by EEG) that
occurs within 100 ms after you perform an error. There are some
different theories in the scientific community of what the ERN reflects,
but many agree that ERN represent some kind of conflict monitoring,
Teper and Ingzlict write that: “According to this theory,
negative-going waves like the ERN occur not only upon the commission of
an error, but also upon correct responses that are high in conflict,
such as incongruent trails on the Stroop task”
. And they continue with
adding that more recent research suggests that the ERN may also
represent a distress response to performing worse than expected. In
their study they also measured something called error positivity (Pe),
which occurs after the ERN and it’s presumed to represent whether and
error was consciously detected.

Study results

As expected the meditators performed better on the Stroop task, and the
researchers’ analysis confirmed that meditators indeed exhibited higher
neurophysiological responses to errors (i.e. ERN). In addition
meditators did not show significant higher Pes than non-meditators,
indicating that meditators are quick to let go of their errors, even
though they are good at noticing them (as indicated by an elevated ERN).
They also ruled out that meditators showed higher ERNs simply due to
performing better on the Stroop task, i.e. the effect being an
epiphenomenon of cognitive performance. Meditators also exhibited
significantly higher emotional acceptance, but interestingly there were
no significant differences on the “present moment-awareness”-subscale.

Some conclusions

What this study tells us is that meditation might aid executive
functioning by enhanced performance monitoring in combination with
increased acceptance of emotions. This reminds me of Acceptance and
Commitment Therapy-studies done on sports performance (see Gardner &
Moore, 2004
), where it has been shown that emotional acceptance can
increase performance. The theory is that athletes can “choose” to lose
as an act of emotional avoidance, and that enhanced acceptance can aid
in engaging in more value oriented actions, i.e. to fight through the
pain or shame of being on the loosing end of a game. The same mechanism
could be at work in the study by Teper and Ingzlict. I have done the
Stroop-task myself on several occasions and it can be really frustrating
getting stuck on the incongruent items. So I can really see that
mindfulness and acceptance skills could truly help subjects in letting
go of unhelpful thoughts, and keep them focused on the present task one
item at a time. Additionally, acceptance skills might also aid you by
helping you progress even though you feel panic about being about the
fail miserably on the task. I think mindfulness-naive people might be
more at risk of getting demoralized and basically half-ass their way
through the rest of the test, if they feel that their performance is
worse than expected.

Quality of the evidence

My main issue with Teper & Ingzlict’s study is drawing a casual
inference between meditation training and improved executive control,
i.e. the risk of committing the ex-post-facto fallacy. Since the study
is a case-control study we can’t really know if meditation training
caused the increased executive control or if individuals with
better-than-average executive control are just more likely to enjoy
meditation practices due to an innate prowess. I would image that you’d
be more likely to give up meditation training if you have very low
executive inhibition. However, other studies have shown that brief
mindfulness training for meditation-naive subjects can improve executive
control. So in it’s research context the results of this study is very
interesting, even though I’d prefer to see more high constraint study

R, & Inzlicht M (2012). Meditation, mindfulness, and executive control:
The importance of emotional acceptance and brain-based performance
monitoring. Social cognitive and
affective neuroscience
PMID: 22507824
Garner, F., & Moore, Z. (2004). A
mindfulness-acceptance-commitment-based approach to athletic performance
enhancement: Theoretical considerations
Behavior Therapy, 35 (4),
707-723 DOI: 10.1016/S0005-7894(04)80016-9

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