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Does Mindfulness Meditation Training Enhance Executive Control? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials in Adults

Abstract

Objectives

Over the last years, mindfulness meditation has been claimed to be effective in enhancing several cognitive domains, including executive control. However, these claims have been mostly based on findings pertaining to case-control and cross-sectional studies, which are by nature unable to reveal causal relationships. Aiming to address this issue, we set out to conduct the first quantitative assessment of the literature concerning mindfulness meditation as an enhancer for executive control considering only randomized controlled studies.

Methods

We conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis covering experimental studies testing the effect of mindfulness meditation training on at least one executive control function (working memory, inhibitory control, or cognitive flexibility) in adult samples. Four databases were examined, resulting in the identification of 822 candidate references. After a systematic filtering process, a set of 16 studies was retained for evaluation, of which 13 could be included in a subsequent meta-analysis.

Results

We found an average effect size of g = 0.34 [0.16, 0.51], indicating a small-to-medium effect of mindfulness meditation training in enhancing executive control. Effect sizes for individual functions were g = 0.42 [0.10, 0.74] for working memory, g = 0.42 [0.20, 0.63] for inhibitory control, and g = 0.09 [−0.13, 0.31] for cognitive flexibility. Funnel plot asymmetry analysis revealed no evidence of publication bias.

Conclusions

Taken together, our findings provide preliminary and moderate yet positive evidence supporting the enhancing effects of mindfulness meditation on executive control. Shortcomings of included studies and considerations for future empirical and meta-analytical research are discussed.

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Acknowledgments

We wish to thank the anonymous reviewers whose valuable comments helped improving earlier versions of this article. This research project was partly conducted during the first author’s master studies (MSc Neuroscience and Cognition, Utrecht University). The paper is part of the doctoral dissertation of the first author under the supervision of the last author.

Data Availability Statement

Data and scripts used for the conduction of the meta-analyses are publicly available at Open Science Framework (https://osf.io/pdtwv/).

Funding

LC was supported by a doctoral fellowship from “la Caixa” Foundation (ID 100010434). The fellowship code is LCF/BQ/ES18/11670002. MAV was supported by grants 2016-T1/SOC-1395 from Comunidad de Madrid (Programa de Atracción de Talento Investigador) and PSI2017-85159-P from the Spanish Agencia Estatal de Investigación, Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad. JL was supported by a research project grant PSI2017-84926-P from the Spanish Agencia Estatal de Investigación, Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad.

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LC: conceptualized and conducted the systematic review, conducted the meta-analysis and wrote the manuscript. VP: participated as second reviewer of the literature. MAV: conducted the meta-analysis and provided critical review and feedback during the writing of the previous versions of this manuscript. JL: assisted conceptualizing and conducting the systematic review and provided critical review and feedback during the writing of previous versions of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Luis Cásedas.

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Cásedas, L., Pirruccio, V., Vadillo, M.A. et al. Does Mindfulness Meditation Training Enhance Executive Control? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials in Adults. Mindfulness 11, 411–424 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-019-01279-4

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Keywords

  • Mindfulness
  • Meditation
  • Executive control
  • Executive functions
  • Working memory
  • Inhibitory control
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Cognitive enhancement