When you’re feeling fuzzy, having trouble paying attention, and catch yourself making mistakes on the task at hand, taking a pause may be more helpful than trying to grind your way through it. Research has found that sometimes the answer is to back off the task—or from the world entirely.
For just a few minutes, that is! Taking a break in the form of meditation or just working on a mindfulness exercise has been shown to rewire the brain to actually recognize mistakes faster than when you don’t take time out to meditate.
A study from Michigan State University enlisted the help of over two hundred adults to see the power that a 20-minute mediation session could have on personal error recognition. They focused on a type of meditation that’s called “open monitoring meditation” which is more focused on cultivating a sensation of stillness by quietly sitting and taking note of everything that’s happening in mind and body. Letting the mind wander without judgement is one of the key parts of open monitoring meditation, rather than focusing on visualizations or mantras.
The neural effects of meditation were recorded on EEG which demonstrated that the brain cell signal necessary to trigger a conscious error recognition was strengthened after just one session in participants who had no prior experience in meditation. Though it didn’t result in instant benefits for task performance, watching this neural signal grow stronger (which usually fires less than a second after an error is made) was a first.
Even though we’re tempted to just keep pushing ourselves to do better and perform better when we make mistakes, it’s a promising reminder that sometimes less is more when it comes to cognitive performance. People often refer to the brain as a muscle which has to be exercised and used in order to keep it strong and in peak condition; but real results occur when we exercise the brain in a new way, which doesn’t seem like exercise at all.
Lin, Yanli, William D. Eckerle, Ling W. Peng, and Jason S. Moser 2019. “On Variation in Mindfulness Training: A Multimodal Study of Brief Open Monitoring Meditation on Error Monitoring” Brain Sciences 9, no. 9: 226. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci9090226