Mindfulness and critical thinking: structural relations, short-term state effects, and long-term intervention effects
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Background - In recent years, many claims have been made regarding the application of mindfulness practice to the improvement of everyday thinking skills. Everyday thinking skills are best measured using assessments developed in the field of research focused on critical thinking. When considering the theoretical foundation of a relationship between mindfulness and critical thinking, there are generally two main perspectives put forward. One view suggests that mindfulness does not facilitate critical thinking due to the association between mindfulness and acceptance. Another view suggests that since mindfulness practice appears to result in improved executive functioning, it may facilitate the operation of reflective processes which are crucial to effective critical thinking. However, no previous studies have directly examined the relationship between mindfulness and critical thinking. The present research sought to address this gap in the literature. Methods - Study 1 examined individual differences in the present-moment attention and non-reactivity facets of dispositional mindfulness and their relationships to the core executive functions of updating, inhibition and shifting, and critical thinking. Study 2 examined the effects of an experimental manipulation of state mindfulness on performance on a complex executive function task and a critical thinking task. Participants were randomly assigned to either complete a brief mindfulness meditation or a sham meditation consisting of guided mind-wandering. The extent to which individual differences in dispositional mindfulness, need for cognition and actively open-minded thinking moderated the effects of the experimental manipulation of state mindfulness on the primary measures was also examined. Study 3 consisted of a double-blinded, randomised controlled trial comparing the effects of an online mindfulness training program with those of an online guided sham meditation program on executive functioning, thinking dispositions and critical thinking. Results - Study 1 demonstrated a significant but weak indirect effect between both facets of mindfulness and critical thinking through inhibition. A negative direct effect of non-reactivity on critical thinking was also found. Study 2 found that there was no difference between the experimental condition and the control condition in terms of performance on both the executive function task and the critical thinking task. However, moderation analyses suggested that the brief mindfulness meditation did improve critical thinking for those lower in need for cognition and those lower in actively open-minded thinking. Study 3 found that there were no differences between the mindfulness meditation group and the sham meditation group in the extent to which executive functioning, thinking dispositions and critical thinking changed from baseline to follow-up. Conclusion - The results of these studies together suggest that the effects of mindfulness on critical thinking are mostly small and, in experimental contexts, indistinguishable from those of closely matched control conditions. Furthermore, only limited support was found for the mediating role of executive functioning in the relationship between mindfulness and critical thinking. These results suggest that claims regarding the supposed benefits of mindfulness practice for critical thinking should be tempered until further research is conducted.
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