Don’t believe the hype: Mindfulness has its downsides too


By training your brain to think only in the now, you are reducing many of its valuable functions, says Keiron Sparrowhawk

Many people today are looking at other ways to understand their thinking – and have used techniques such as mindfulness. Mindfulness can be very powerful. Through meditation you bring your mind and senses to consider your current situation; you bring yourself to ‘now’. The mindfulness technique is particularly effective if you are continually ruminating on past, awful episodes in your life, or if you are continually catastrophizing about potential malicious things in the future that may never happen. Mindfulness brings your mind to the present and effectively says, “Here and now you are in a good situation, so stop worrying about the past and future”. The technique works for millions of mindfulness practitioners. But be careful, there may be a price to pay to being in the ‘now’.

Episodic memory and executive function are two of the five core cognitive health domains. The price you may have to pay with mindfulness is that, by being in the present, you blunt your episodic memory and executive function.

Episodic memory is your ability to recall specific events and to recall the outcomes, people and places associated with those events. It is your wisdom and increases as you go round the block a few times, building your experience reservoir as you go. However, with a strong episodic memory you find you accumulate this wisdom quicker than your peers.

With an effective executive function, you are the visionary and strategist within your organization. Executive function is your ability to plan and organize, to think out of the box, to attempt new tasks and be creative. It is also your ability to inhibit actions because you are able to consider the consequences of them on yourself and on others.

But, by blocking your rumination and catastrophizing, you may also block some of the wisdom and creativity in your cognitive skill set. Mindfulness may still bring you many benefits, but you should use it knowing there could be an opportunity cost.


This is small extract from a major feature by Keiron Sparrowhawk on the functioning of the professional brain, to be published in the Q2 edition of Dialogue.