In recent years, we have become more and more used to seeing the effects of mindfulness discussed in the media by psychologists, neuroscientists and even politicians and celebrities. While it may seem that mindfulness is some sort of panacea, with more rigorous research we are starting to see where it is useful and where it is not.
We are also beginning to understand the mechanisms which underlie the effects of mindfulness. In considering the research on mindfulness, it is important to acknowledge two things: the scientific study of mindfulness is in its infancy while the practice of mindfulness is in fact ancient. These facts and the great surge of enthusiasm for mindfulness in popular culture can sometimes lead to claims being made regarding the effects of mindfulness which are not grounded in empirical evidence. This does not mean that such claims should be immediately dismissed. Rather, we should subject these claims to investigation. We are most interested in claims that mindfulness improves everyday thinking in typically functioning individuals. Look at the advertising for any course, app, book or website through which you can learn the practice of mindfulness skills and you will see such claims. Rarely, however, will you see any evidence cited to back up these claims. While it is true that traditional writings on mindfulness proposed that clarity of thinking can be cultivated through the practice of mindfulness, currently scientific evidence is lacking.
Thinking skills can be operationally defined in many different ways. Assessments that attempt to capture the thinking skills of people in real-world situations can be found in the body of literature focused on critical thinking (Butler, 2012; Ku, 2009). Critical Thinking is commonly defined as a metacognitive process, consisting of a number of sub-skills (e.g., analysis, evaluation, and inference) and dispositions (e.g., trustful of reason, willing to change one’s position), that, when used appropriately, increases the chances of producing a logical solution to a problem or a valid conclusion to an argument (Dwyer, 2011; Dwyer, Hogan & Stewart, 2014). Therefore, the empirical question as to whether mindfulness enhances critical thinking skills is worth investigating.
There are at least two rather distinct possibilities when considering the effect of mindfulness practice on critical thinking. One view suggests that mindfulness may be a hindrance to effective critical thinking due to its association with acceptance and non-elaborative, or non-reactive processing (Brendel, 2015). If this view is true, the implications for widespread integration of mindfulness practices into places of work and education, while potentially positive for individual wellbeing (Gu, Strauss, Bond, & Cavanagh, 2015), may be detrimental to individual and collective thinking and decision-making. Another view suggests that mindfulness facilitates effective critical thinking due to its association with improved self-regulation (Baer & Lykins, 2011). This view has been proposed as a reason to integrate mindfulness practices into higher education settings (Shapiro, Brown, & Astin, 2011). If this view is true, mindfulness could be an effective way to synergistically improve both wellbeing and critical thinking. This would set mindfulness apart from many other practices within positive psychology aimed at promoting wellbeing which may impair critical thinking due to their focus on cultivating positive emotions (Bolte et al., 2003; Fiedler et al., 2003). These are intriguing questions that require serious study.
We have established a programme of research focused on the link between mindfulness and critical thinking. In our first study, recently published, we examined the relationship between dispositional mindfulness and critical thinking and whether this relationship is mediated by self-regulatory processes. Notably, early teachings on mindfulness suggested that a dispositional tendency to engage in mindful attention is an innate trait as well as something which can be trained (Rau & Williams, 2015). Dispositional mindfulness is a construct which reflects the tendency to engage in present-moment attentional focus coupled with non-reactive monitoring of one’s ongoing experience (Brown & Ryan, 2003). As such, dispositional mindfulness involves two distinct dispositions, present-moment attentional focus
and non-reactive monitoring
, each of which may be related to critical thinking via different self-regulatory mechanisms.
The first component of mindfulness involves present-moment attentional focus. When attention is focused on the present moment, all current internal and external stimuli are observed and brought into awareness. As a result of this greater awareness of what is happening in the present moment, affective cues (i.e., emotions, feelings) which are normally overlooked are more likely to be noticed. It has been suggested that one function of such affective cues is to indicate whether one’s current action state is inconsistent with one’s goals and therefore some level of control needs to be exerted to redirect action in a way that is consistent with one’s goals (Teper et al., 2013). The second component of mindfulness, non-reactivity, involves the inhibition of our natural tendency to elaborate on and/or suppress affective cues – both of which are cognitively effortful. This allows for the early engagement of emotion regulation before intense emotional reactivity to the attended thoughts, feelings and sensations can occur (Teper et al., 2013).
Seen this way, this operationalisation of mindfulness implies both monitoring and control, skills which are inherently self-regulatory (Bishop et al., 2004). This idea is supported by evidence for improved self-regulation of behaviour as a result of mindfulness in studies on healthy eating (Jordan, Wang, Donatoni, & Meier, 2014), procrastination (Sirois & Tosti, 2012), smoking cessation (Libby, Worhunsky, Pilver, & Brewer, 2012), persistence (Evans, Baer, & Segerstrom, 2009), and alcohol intake (Ostafin, Bauer, & Myxter, 2012). As such, mindfulness may enhance self-regulation, but how does this relate to critical thinking skills?
In cognitive models of self-regulation, self-regulation can be operationally defined by reference to the construct of executive control. Executive control consists of at least three basic cognitive processes that are central to our ability to control and regulate our actions: updating, inhibition and shifting. Updating refers to the active revision and monitoring of working memory as new information arises; shifting refers to switching between tasks which have different rules; and inhibition refers to the active, deliberate suppression of thoughts or responses and the maintenance of attention on goal-relevant information (Miyake & Friedman, 2012; Miyake et al., 2000). Evidence supports the view that effective executive control supports the coordination of thoughts and actions in a goal-directed manner and is essential for success in education, work and everyday living (Hofmann et al., 2012).
Evidence also supports a positive relationship between mindfulness and executive functioning. Notably, present-moment attentional focus developed through mindfulness practice requires the ability to switch attention back to current experience when the mind wanders (Bishop et al., 2004), and continuous updating of ongoing, current experience (Teper & Inzlicht, 2013). Furthermore, engaging this present-moment attention in a non-reactive way requires the inhibition of elaborative processing such that the focus on current experience is sustained, as, naturally, such elaborations often draw us away from the ongoing changes in our current experience (Hayes & Shenk, 2004; Holas & Jankowski, 2012).
Therefore, we can reasonably hypothesise that dispositional mindfulness supports self-regulation and we can examine how both components of mindfulness – present-moment attentional focus and non-reactive monitoring – relate to the executive control processes underlying self-regulation: updating, inhibition and shifting. Furthermore, we can examine whether any positive effect of dispositional mindfulness on critical thinking is mediated by executive control skill. We did exactly this by asking 178 university students to fill out questionnaires to assess their level of dispositional mindfulness and to complete tasks that measured executive control skills and critical thinking skills. The key executive control skills — updating, inhibition and shifting — were measured using short computerised tasks. We used the Halpern Critical Thinking Assessment to measure critical thinking. The Halpern Critical Thinking Assessment requires participants to respond to various hypothetical situations involving medical research, social policy analysis and other types of problems encountered in everyday life. Mindfulness was measured using the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire. We used structural equation modelling to examine the direct effects of mindfulness on critical thinking and the indirect effects of mindfulness on critical thinking mediated by executive control.
Our analyses revealed several interesting findings. Notably, higher levels of disposition mindfulness predicted higher critical thinking ability. Also, the executive control skills of inhibition and updating were found to be positively related to critical thinking. Interestingly, the positive effect of present-moment awareness on critical thinking was fully mediated by inhibition. However, a more complex relationship emerged in the relationship between non-reactivity and critical thinking. Here we found a positive indirect effect of mindfulness on critical thinking mediated by inhibition, but there was also a significant direct effect of non-reactivity on critical thinking that was negative. This suggests that there are other variables which account for the relationship between non-reactivity and critical thinking other than inhibition and that these have a deleterious effect on critical thinking. Further research is needed to identify these other variables but potential candidates include decreases in worry and repetitive thought, greater emotional regulation and positive mood, and the tendency towards acceptance and non-elaborative processing brought about by engagement in mindful attention, each of which may impair critical thinking.
It makes sense that inhibition emerged as a possible mechanism underlying the relationship between mindfulness and critical thinking. Mindfulness training does appear to be beneficial for other higher-order thinking skills which may also depend on executive functioning such as insight problem-solving (Ostafin & Kassman, 2012; Wen et al., 2013), moral reasoning and ethical decision-making (Cottone & Javier, 2007; Ruedy & Schweitzer, 2011; Shapiro et al., 2012). Each of these studies emphasised the non-automatic orientation to experience that mindfulness brings, which implies the inhibition of automatic or impulsive responses in situations that require reflective decision-making. However, no previous study examined whether executive functioning mediated the effect of mindfulness on these cognitive outcomes. Notably, some theories of thinking and reasoning propose two types of thinking processes: Type 1 processes exert minimal working memory load and occur automatically in response to stimuli (West et al., 2008). Type 2 processes, on the other hand, are typically slow, limited in capacity, conscious and controlled and critical thinking belongs to this class of processes (Evans & Stanovich, 2013). Crucially, studies in this tradition show that engaging Type 2 processes requires the inhibition of Type 1 processes. Rather than thinking fast, as Daniel Kahneman’s work on heuristic processing shows we have a tendency towards, we need to slow down and inhibit heuristic or automatic responses if we want to be good critical thinkers. Therefore, our results suggest a mechanism underlying the relationship between mindfulness and critical thinking which is consistent with established theory and a large body of research. However, we must bear in mind that this relationship is far from straightforward and that according to these results over-reliance on the non-reactivity aspect of mindfulness might impair critical thinking. We must also bear in mind that it is too early in this programme of research to make any strong causal claims in relation to mechanisms of mindfulness and their role in critical thinking. We are in the process of analysing and conducting more experiments to shed light on the relationship between mindfulness and critical thinking. Our thinking in this regard may be slow, but the reward is a much deeper understanding of mindfulness mechanisms. We hope that this will add to a more informed debate in relation to the potential impact of mindfulness practices in educational contexts.