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Mindful : August 2014
deployment approaches. The researchers gave 31 Ma rine reservists 24 hours of training in Sta nley’s eight-week pro- gra m. Seventeen Ma rines and 12 civilians ser ved as controls. The researchers tested work- ing memory capacity at the beginning and end. Civilians’ working mem- ory improved slightly. The control group of Marines’ working memory became notably worse as deployment approached, consistent with earlier obser vations of the toll that pre-deployment takes. Marines receiving mindful- ness training who practiced extensively experienced improved working memory. The more time a Marine spent practicing mindfulness meditation, the greater the sense of well-being, which Jha believes is a direct effect of mindfulness. The key finding, however, was that the more a Marine practiced mindfulness, the less severe the anxiety, fear, and other negative emotions while the higher the level of positive emotions. Crucially, that effect correlated with improvements in working memory. That is, mindful- ness training and practice improved working memory, and better working memory reduced negative emotions. These findings “suggest that practicing mindfulness might allow you to build a working-memory ‘reser ve,’” Jha says. “By improving your working memory capacity, you might be able to protect against both cognitive and emotiona l impairments.” The result is somewhat ironic, in that one of the most robust findings in the science of stress is that high stress murders memory, both work- ing memory and long-term memory. Yet by going at the relationship between stress and memory sort of ass-back- ward—improve working memory and see what hap- pens to the negative feelings triggered by stress—this work has deepened our under- standing of the relationship between cognition and emo- tion. Mindfulness training improves working memory. Better working memory enables better regulation of emotion—less flying off the handle, less terror at the pros- pect of deploying to Iraq. How? Researchers have identified several possibili- ties. The better your working memory, the better other elements of cognition. As a result, you can successfully filter out thoughts of despair, steer your at tention to avoid the excessive rumination that can bring on depression, and draw on memories to reframe negative experiences as no worse than neutral. Mindfulness training might protect troops from post-traumatic stress by improving their ability to quash negative emotions and strengthen emotional control. It might also provide greater cognitive resources for members of the militar y “to act ethically a nd effectively in the morally ambiguous and emotionally challenging ” war zones where they find them- selves, Jha and her colleagues wrote in the journal Emotion. The work applies not only to the military. A 2012 study, led by Michael Mrazek in the psychological and brain sci- ences department at UC Santa Ba rbara, showed that mind- fulness training improved working memory capacity, reduced mind wandering, and increased performance for people taking the Graduate Record Exam. We’re not all heading into combat or fighting to enter grad school, but think of what mindfulness regimens might do for police and firefighters, teachers, a nd medical stu- dents. And, really, all of us. ● August 2014 mindful 27 August 2014 mindful 27