Mindfulness and working
Evaluating short-term meditation effects on
working memory related tasks and self-reported
Författare: André Kalmendal
Handledare: Bengt Persson
Examinator: Andrejs Ozolins
Effekten av kortsiktig meditation är omdiskuterad. Det finns studier som indikerar att
det inte finns någon eller limiterad effekt. Tidigare forskning kring meditation har också
visat positiva effekter på arbetsrelaterade uppgifter och bibehållen uppmärksamhet men
även på stressreducering och depression. Den här studien utvärderar effekten av guidad
meditation vid tre tillfällen på en experimentgrupp av tio personer i jämförelse med en
kontrollgrupp. Resultaten visar inte att mindfulness hade signifikant påverkan på
arbetsminnet men signifikant positiv påverkan på stressreducering och på
mindfulnessdrag som Agera med medvetenhet och Acceptera utan fördomar. Resultaten
går i linje med tidigare forskning inom det här området.
Arbetsminne – Kortidsminne - Mindfulness - Meditation - Stress - Ångest – Agera
med edvetenhet – Acceptera utan fördomar
The effects of short-term meditation is a debated subject. There is studies that indicates
that there is none or limited effect. Research of mindfulness meditation has also shown
positive effects on working memory related tasks and sustained attention, but it can also
show reduction of stress and depression. This study evaluate the effects of short-term
guided meditation in a group of 10 persons in comparison with a control group. Results
indicated no difference in memory tasks such as digit-span but the experimental group
showed significant improvements in self-reported stress and mindful assets such as
Acting with awareness and Acceptance without judgement. The results are consistent
with previous research in this area.
Working memory - Short-term memory - Mindfulness - Meditation - Stress -
Anxiety – Act with awareness - Accept without judgement
First of all I want to thank all participants in this study. Thank you for your time and
effort. Thanks to my supervisor Bengt Persson who guided me through study. I also
want to thank Anna and Martin Wikfalk at MindApps for letting me use their app and
recordings for this purpose.
This study will evaluate if mindfulness training have a positive effect on working
memory and health related subjects such as stress, anxiety and depression. With
exercise, the performer will be able to train concentration and attention which in turn
provides the means to influence thoughts and behaviour in the present.
Meditation exercise has been practiced in numerous cultural groups for hundreds of
years in different shapes and with different names. There are different styles, eg,
concentrative, mindfulness and transcendental meditations. Mindfulness is a key
component in search for awareness in both Zen and Vipassana meditations and has its
roots in Buddhist philosophy (Chiesa, Calati & Serretti, 2011). Zen buddhist
Gunaratana (2011) writes that mindfulness is an activity and that there is no precise
answer to what mindfulness is, he means that it can be described in different words but
each description could still be correct. Mindfulness is usually defined in terms of paying
attention to the present and are also in western editions related with relaxation and
concentrative meditation. Marlatt and Kristeller (1999, p. 68) describes it as “bringing
one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis” and
Kabat-Zinn (1994, p. 4) states that mindfulness is defined as “paying attention in a
particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally”.
It can be hard to separate concentrative meditation from mindfulness meditation
since when practiced they seem to overlap one another. Mindfulness is used in
attentional practice more as a nonjudgmental observer. All feelings, thoughts and
sensations are welcome during the attentional stance and concentrative meditations are
more about narrowing your focus down to a specific thought, feeling or body sensation
(Cahn & Polich, 2006). Overlapping these two exercises in a recorded meditation
session could look like e.g.:
“focusing on your breath, if your thoughts wander off just notice it
nonjudgmentally and bring your focus back to your breath”.
Recently, mindfulness has been more widely accepted in modern medicine and included
in medical context as well as school psychology (Jha, Krompinger & Baime, 2007,
Terjestam, Bengtsson & Jansson, 2016). There is, for example, a mindfulness stress
reduction programme (MBSR) developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn (2003) and a mindfulness
cognitive therapy programme (MBCT) where the participants, with the help from
mindfulness practice, learn to develop the capacity to recognize the patterns in the mind.
They will allow negative emotions and sensations and look at the objective
nonjudgmentally without feeling the urge to fight or run away from them. The treatment
is associated with a reduction of depressive relapses compared to usual treatment and
antidepressants (Williams & Kuyken, 2012).
In Swedish elementary schools, studies has been conducted with a mindfulness-
based program called Compas (Compassion and Attention in the Schools), in which
positive results with mindfulness meditation, visualization of compassion, and reflection
and mentalization enhanced the pupils’ well-being, social relations and self-regulations
(Terjestam, et al., 2016).
It is widely known that attention is a key part in meditation, and there is
growing research showing that meditation and focused attention can change brain
structures and attention processing (Buttle, 2011). Research has also shown that
mindfulness meditators score higher on attention measures, compared to non-
meditators. Zeidan, Johnson, Diamond, David and Goolkasian (2010) showed that four
sessions of twenty-minutes mindfulness sessions had positive effects on memory
discriminations, maintaining focus, and retrieving information more accurately from
working memory. The meditators had significantly greater number of processing runs
under conditions that required faster stimulus processing.
Moore and Malinowski (2009) showed that mindfulness also have a positive
effect on task performance and is linked with enhanced cognitive flexibility, focus and
sustained attention. This was observed in a comparison between meditators and non-
meditators on a Stroop task and a d2-concentration and enduring test. Research also
showed that mindfulness and other meditation exercises increased alpha power frontally
during the state of practicing, and also as a common trait in normal state. This increase
could be monitored for both long-term and short-term meditators (Cahn & Polich,
Working memory has been widely discussed since the first theories were presented.
Baddeley (2007) describes working memory as a temporary storage system under
attentional control that underpins our capacity for complex thoughts. It is essential in
cognitive tasks such as reasoning and learning. In Baddeley and Hitch’s theory, working
memory consists of four components: the phonological loop, the visuo spatial
sketchpad, the central executive and the episodic buffer. (Henry, 2011). Baddeley and
Logie (1999) suggested that the processes and stores used by working memory are
considered separate from the long-term memory system but some researchers mean that
the temporary retention of information in working memory uses the long-term memory
by selective activation (Marklund, 2006). Cowan (1999) suggests that working memory;
is part of short-term memory but also extends into long-term memory, and Ericsson and
Kintsch (1995) provide a theory with a long-term working memory, in their studies they
found clear evidence of storage in long-term memory mediated by retrieval structures.
To oppose Baddeleys theories about limited working memory, they mean that
interference with the two slave systems, visual-spatial sketchpad and the articulatory
loop with a secondary task, only degrade performance on the primary task slightly.
Reading (Baddeley, 1986), typing (Shaffer, 1975) and other highly skilled
activities such as piano playing (Allport, Antonis & Reynolds, 1972) seem to have
lesser impairment of on-going memory tasks in comparison to activities without any
skills. These findings imply that the central executive has sufficient working memory
capacity to complete the processing, leaving working memory for skilled activities
virtually unexplained, (Ericsson & Kintsch, 1995).
Over the years, researchers have argued over what is shared between short-term
memory’s reflected memory storage and working memory executive attention (Engle,
Tuholski, Laughlin & Conway, 1999). There are no direct answers, and the model and
its terminology are not universally accepted, but over the last two decades we have seen
a general acceptance for the term working memory to be used in a context postulating a
system which combines specialized storage systems with executive control and
attention that shows differences between verbal and visual material (Tulvin & Crank,
Training working memory is also a subject that has been diverted, Melby-
Lervåg and Hulme (2013) suggest that it is hard to prove the effect of working memory
training among both children and adults. With a Stroop task they measured a small
effect directly after training but no measurable effect at a follow-up test for verbal
working memory. They also found limited evidence that suggested sustained
improvement for visuo-spatial working memory. Lee, Lu and Ko (2007) found that
music training is related to performance on working memory tests such as digit span
and nonverbal span. They also found that mental abacus calculations enhance children's
ability to store visuospatial information. This result goes in line with Ericsson and
Kintsch (1995) ideas that working memory training is possible and that it would
enhance the efficiency of storing and assessing task-relevant information.
Recent meta-analytic studies determined that anxiety is related to reduced
working memory capacity. Although some studies tended to find that anxiety mostly
interfered with demanding tasks such as random generation, the meta-analysis found
that poorer performance on simple span test also is associated with anxiety, (Moran,
2016). Studies by Edwards, Moore, Champion and Edwards (2015) pointed out
interesting facts; their results showed that anxiety and situational stress were not
associated with processing efficiency in participants with higher level of working
memory capacity. At lower working memory capacity, though, higher trait anxiety was
associated with poorer efficiency but only for those who reported higher situational
Mindfulness and working memory
Most research made on mindfulness and memory includes a population that has been
practicing mindfulness everyday for years, and effects of short-term practising is not
very well examined except for a few studies (Yates, 2015). Since meditation includes
the practice of attention and concentration, researchers have argued that it should lead to
improvements in both attentional skills and memory related skills (Lykins, Baer &
Gottlob, 2010). The focus of attention in mindfulness should have a rewarding effect on
short-term memory as well as working memory.
Buttle (2011) writes that attention and working memory are linked to our ability
to function, where working memory selects information from our long-time memory or
our environment to be held temporarily in order to be manipulated, to perform decisions
Event Related Potentials (ERPs) have shown a correlation between mindfulness
training and increased cerebral blood flow and cortical auditory processing changes,
associated with learning and memory. This study underlines the hypothesis that
mindfulness training enhances short-term memory (Cahn & Polich, 2006)
Chamber, Lo and Allen (2008) showed significant improvement in memory-
related tasks such as Forward and Backward Digit-span while comparing a mindfulness
group to control groups after a 10-day intensive mindfulness meditation retreat. They
also show improvement in subjective depressive syndrome, focused attention and other
working memory related tasks in comparison to groups that didn’t undergo the same
The Present Study
While several studies show that mindfulness can improve attention and cognitive
flexibility, the present study intends to study the effects of short-term mindfulness
practicing on working memory test such as digit span backwards.
- The main hypothesis is that mindfulness has a positive effect on working
memory tests, meaning that the meditators show a greater improvement in digit-
span test than non-meditators.
- The study will also try to examine whether there is any link between practicing
mindfulness and health benefits. More specifically, do participants with higher
level of mindfulness also have better results on self-reported measurments of
stress, anxiety and depression.
Twenty-five persons were asked randomly to participate in this study, five persons
answered no, due to lack of time. The study persons was recruited voluntarily and
consisted of 13 females and 7 males within the age of 20-35 (M = 25.45, SD = 3.35).
Most were students (60%) and the remainder were working. All of the working
participants had post-secondary educations and none of the participants reported any
subjective memory impairments.
Ethical considerations ____________________________________________________
All procedures performed with the participants followed the suggested ethical standard
provided by the American Psychological Association. The study persons were initially
informed about the procedure of the study, that the results would be treated
anonymously, that no individual results would be published, and that they could
withdraw from the study at any moment without any consequences.
Participants were asked questions concerning their gender, age, level of education and
occupation at the entrance of the study.
Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills scale (KIMS)
The Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills scale, KIMS, was used to measure the
participants´ level of mindfulness (Baer, Smith & Allen, 2004). KIMS consists of 39
scale items. The participant is asked to rate their general experience with possible
answers like ‘Never or very rarely true’ to ‘Very often or always true’ with scores from
1-5. KIMS items are divided to measure four sub-scales, Observing, Describing, Acting
with awareness and Accepting without judgment. Cronbach’s Alpha for these sub-scales
has been reported as .91, .84, .83 and .87 (Baer et al., 2004).
Perceived Stress Scale
To measure the levels of stress with the participants, Perceived Stress Scale, PSS, was
used (Cohen, Kamarck & Mermelstein, 1983). The PSS contains of 10 scale items and it
consists of 3 sub-scales. PSS measures how unpredictable, uncontrollable, and
overloaded the participant finds life within the last month. Respondents answer how
often they felt in a certain way with possible answers like ‘never’ to ‘very often’ with
scores from 0-4 (Cohen & Williamson, 1988).
Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale
Hospital Anxiety and Depression scale, HADS, was used to assess the levels of
depression and anxiety in the participants. HADS contains of 14 scale items and
consists for two sub-scales, anxiety and depression. It measures the respondent's
emotional disturbances with questions that refer to their lives within the last week. The
questions are scored from 0-3 and possible answers are like ‘not at all’ to ‘most of the
time (Lisspers, Nygren & Söderman, 1997; Zigmond & Snaith 1983).
Digit Span Backwards
One of the most commonly used tests for working memory is the digit span backwards
(Hilbert, Nakagawa, Puci, Zech & Buhner, 2015). The Digit-span backwards task
requires the participants to repeat a series of numbers read to them. The series of
numbers varies from three to ten and increases by one number every sequel. Each
sequence is read with one-second interval, only once. For each test a different number
series was used to eliminate the possibility of remembering the number order of the last
test. The participant was stopped when repeating two wrong numbers in a row, but the
test score only counts for correct numbers in a row.
The meditation consisted of two recorded visualizing guided meditations, a) Loving
Kindness (11min) was practised once and b) Lake meditation (11min) was practised
twice. Both recordings starts with quick explanations of the session followed by a
mindful breath meditation, being mindful of your breath in body, noticing temporary
feelings and thoughts in a non-judgmental and accepting way.
a) The Loving kindness meditation is influenced by sessions created by
Rosemary and Steve Weissman (2013). The participants are asked to visualize a person
towards whom they feel loving kindness (e.g. a friend, family member or someone
unknown) and repeat four sentences to that person (may you feel secure/may you be
healthy in your body and your mind/may you be happy/may you find inner peace), after
this part they are asked to direct this feelings and sentences towards themselves and to
all living things. Compassion and acceptance are in focus. The session ends with
instructions to be aware of your body and surroundings.
b) In the Lake meditation is influenced by meditations made by Kabat-Zinn
(2017). After the introduction the participants are instructed to visualize a lake
(“Imagine the waves on top, are there big or small waves?”, “Imagine the silence below
the surface...”) followed by instructions to become the lake. While being this lake, the
participants are asked to note their feelings and emotions during the session (”does it
change the nature of the lake?”). Awareness, acceptance and self-regulation are in
focus. The sessions ends with instructions to be aware of your body and surroundings.
IBM SPSS Statistics 23 (126.96.36.199, 2015) was used to examine the data. A mixed-model
ANOVA was conducted to process the results for all measurements between the
experiment group and control group. A one-sample T test was used to compare the
means between my results and norm means. Spearman's correlation was used to
determine the relationship between the digit span results and anxiety. A 95% confidence
interval was calculated for each effect size. Levene’s test of equality was used to
measure the variance between the groups. Q-Q and histogram plots was used to see if
there was any outliers in the data and Mauchly’s test was used to see if the assumption
of sphericity had been violated.
The participants were randomly divided into two groups, one experimental group (EG)
and one control group (CG). To secure anonymity, each person was given a number
from 1-20. Each participant in the EG met with the experimenter three times in their
homes within the range of ten days, the control group met the experimenter two times
during the same time range. Consent was obtained from each participant before the
study started. The participants filled out the surveys and took the digit span test two
times, one at the entrance to get the individual´s baseline and one after completing the
study to see if any improvements was made. The test was performed directly after the
All the participants in the EG meditated with headphones, alone in the room
without the experimental leader, the CG made the test without any mindfulness session.
The meetings varied between 20-40 minutes, the length depended on whether the
participant was included in the EG or CG.
There was no missing data from this study; all participants took the formulae and tests
without any questions.
State of mindfulness
The results from the total scores shows that there was a significant difference within the
groups F (1, 18) = 5.022, p = .038, 𝜂" = .218. The experiment group (M = 128.1, SD =
11.19) had significantly higher level of mindfulness after attending to the meditation
When analysing the subscales, Act of awareness showed a significant difference
F (1, 18) = 5.188, p = .035, #𝜂" = .224. There were also significant differences when
Accept without judgment was examined F (1, 18) = 6.704, p = .019, #𝜂" = .271. The EG
showed higher level of Awareness (M = 32.8, SD = 3.79) and Accept without
judgement (M = 34.4, SD = 2.83) after attending the meditation sessions, indicating that
mindfulness has a positive effect on both Awareness and Acceptence without
judgement. However, results showed no significant difference within the groups when
the level Observe was analysed F (1, 18) = .017, p = .898, #𝜂" = .001. Neither did the
level of Describe show any significant difference within the groups F (1, 18) = .519, p =
.480, #𝜂" = .028. The results showed that there was equal variance between the groups in
Table I. Means (Standard Deviations) scores of the KIMS test.
Experiment group (n = 10) Control group (n = 10)
Pre Post Pre Post
Observe 33.2 (5.99) 33.2 (5.39) 35.0 (5.31) 35.1 (4.95)
Describe 28.3 (4.66) 27.7 (4.96) 32.2 (3.70) 32.2 (3.25)
Act of awareness 28.6 (1,71) 32.8 (3.79)* 28.5 (2.32) 29.9 (3.10)
Accept without 30.0 (4.39) 34.4 (2.83)* 28.6 ( 3.27) 30.1 (3.72)
Total score 120.1 (11.32) 128.1 (11.19)* 124.3 (7.31) 127.3 (5.39)
* p < .05.
In comparison to the Swedish means, the study participants in the experiment group had
a significantly higher mean of Act of awareness than swedish average t (9) = 4.083, p =
.003. There was no significant difference when Accept without judgement was
examined, the results are equal to the findings of Baer et al., (2004), (Hansen, Lundh,
Homman & Wångby-Lundh, 2009).
Table II. Comparison between Swedish means (Standard Deviations) and the EG
Swedish means (n = 51) EG group means (n = 10)
Act of awareness 27.9 (6.4) 32.8 (3.79)*
Accept without 30.3 (6.4) 34.4 (2.83)
* p < .05.
The test results revealed a significant difference within the EG, and not within the CG.
F (1, 18) = 5.886, p = .026, #𝜂" = .246. This indicates that mindfulness meditation
sessions had a positive effect on reducing stress (M = 9.9, SD = 2.884). There was equal
variance between the groups.
Table III. Means (Standard Deviations) scores of the PSS test.
Pre study Post study
Experiment group (n = 10) 14,3 (3.465) 9.9 (2.884)*
Control group (n = 10) 14.9 (5.195) 14.3 (6,165)
* p < .05.
The EG PSS results are signficanly lower than the norm t (9) = -4.714, p = .001,
Table IV. Comparison between norm Means (Standard Deviations) and the EG
Norm means (n = 645) Experiment group (n = 10)
PSS results 14,2 (6.2) 9.9 (2.884)*
* p = .001.
Digit span backwards
There were no significant difference between the experiment group and the control
group in digit span results after participating in this study F = (1, 18) = 3.082, p = .096,
#𝜂" = .146. There was equal variance between the groups.
A correlation was found between Anxiety and the digit span results. There was a
moderate, negative monotonic correlation between Digit span results and anxiety (= -
.452, n = 20, p < .046).
Graph I. The graph shows the correlation between Anxiety and Digit span test results
Table V. Means (Standard Deviations) scores of the Digit span backwards test.
Pre study Post study
Experiment group (n = 10) 4.8 (.918) 5.7 (.674)
Control group (n = 10) 4.6 (.699) 5.0 (.816)
There was no difference in the level of Anxiety F (1, 18) = 1.340, p = .262, , #𝜂" = .069
or in the level of Depression F (1, 18) = .080, p = .781, , #𝜂" = .004. The variance was
equal between the groups.
Table VI. Means (Standard Deviations) scores of the HADS test.
Experiment group (n = 10) Control group (n = 10)
Pre Post Pre Post
Anxiety 4.3 (2.35) 3.6 (1.26) 4.4 (1.71) 4.5 (1.08)
Depression 4.2 (1.13) 4.1 (.87) 5.3 (1.25) 5.0 (1.24)
The post study PSS test results showed skewness (statistic = 2.245), besides that, no
skewness was reported.
Comparisons between gender, occupation and age.
Differences between gender, occupation and age was tested on all measurements to see
if it would make any impact on the results but indicated low or no significant trends on
any given test.
The results of this study showed that brief mindfulness sessions were effective in
increasing mindfulness as measured by scores on KIMS in the experimental group in
relative to the control group, with an effect size of .21. Two subscales, Acting with
awareness and Accept without judgement was significantly increased after attending to
mindfulness sessions, each with a small to medium effect size. Both traits have high
positive correlations with quality of life (Hansen et. al., 2009) and might therefore be
correlating with psychological well-being. These findings are consistent with previous
literature (Baer, 2003; Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt & Walach, 2004).
The findings of this study also show that mindfulness sessions have positive
effect on stress. After attending to mindfulness meditation the participants showed a
significantly lower mean of stress with an effect size of .25. The findings are consistent
with Grossman et al., (2004) meta-analysis, showing that Kabat-Zinn (2003) MSBR
program and mindfulness practicing is helpful in coping with distress in everyday life as
well as more extraordinary conditions of stress.
It is always wise to be cautious about self-report scales; the engagement and
willingness of the participant may as well contribute to the positive outcome.
The finding in the present study was that brief mindfulness sessions did not have
a significant effect on the digit-span, and there was no support for the initial hypothesis.
Both groups showed increased, but not significant, results at the test. This might be
explained by the participants getting used to the test form since both groups showed
signs of improvement. Neither did higher level of mindfulness correlate with any
improvements at the working memory related tests. This might be explained by
numerous different reasons.
First, in most studies where improvements was shown the participants were
long-term meditators and had been practicing mindfulness and meditation for several
years, except for e.g. the Chambers et al., (2008) study, in which working memory was
improved after attending a 10-days mindfulness retreat. In this study the participants
only meditated three times, which might be too short to get significant results on
working memory test. The results supports Melby-Lervåg and Hulmes (2013) study that
points out that working memory training programs give only near-transfer effects, and
they didn’t find any convincing evidence for durable effects or traits. The results can
also be supportive to Miller's law (Miller, 1956), which proclaims the idea that the
human brain only can withhold a certain number of digits in the short-term memory.
Miller’s law recently got major support from Gingac (2015), who examined test results
from digit span observed from 1923 to 2008. The results showed no increasing trend in
the short-term memory capacity or working memory capacity during this period. The
means during this period reaches from 4.80–5.10 and can be used to strengthen validity
of the current research, (Cowan, 2001; Gingac, 2015).
Secondly, the sample size was too small and may not represent the general
population. The findings might have been different if the sample was increased. To get
enough power in this study the recommended sample size should be equivalent to
twenty-six or more participants in each group (Cohen, 1992). However, the effect size
obtained from my significant results where all over .20. Which, considering the sample
size, inditactes the strength of this mindfulness method.
Another factor could be that this study only used digit-span backwards to test
working memory. Several researchers use various tests, like the controlled oral word
association, symbol digit modalities test and Stroop tests to ensure that working
memory is measured accurately (Moore & Malinowski, 2009; Zeidan et. al., 2010).
In similarity to Moran’s (2016) study, poorer performance on the digit test
correlate with high level of anxiety, although the results indicate that the level of
anxiety and depression in this study sample match the Swedish average (Lisspers et al.,
1997). The experimental group showed a lower, but not significantly, level of anxiety
after attending to the mindfulness sessions, and there was no difference in self-reported
depression. Contrary to prior research, mindfulness practicing had a positive effect on
depression and negative thoughts which led to reduced levels of anxiety and other
powerful emotions like guilt, anger, frustration and shame (Williams & Kuyken, 2012).
After attending to three mindfulness sessions, participants showed significantly positive
effects on the overall level of mindfulness, the traits Act with awareness and Accept
without judgement were significantly improved. Meditation also significantly reduced
the level of stress among the participants. These results have relevance in favour for the
support of beneficial mindfulness programs at workplaces, in school environment or as
therapy. Since the present study evaluated the benefits from brief mindfulness sessions
there is still a lot of ground to cover in this area to find out more about the effects of
meditation. In prior research, the positive effect of training increased with the number of
times the participants attended to the training (Terjestam et. al., 2016). Research has
shown positive results for long-term and short-term meditators, both physically and
psychologically (Cahn & Polich, 2006; Kabat-Zinn, 2003; Williams & Kuyken, 2012).
This area has just begun to be explored and the literature seems to positively support the
findings concerning the effects of mindfulness.
The results make a strong case for further investigations to short-term mindfulness
practicing where the frequency and length of the sessions are manipulated. The
mindfulness meditation in this study focused on awareness, acceptance and compassion.
It would be interesting to see if different kinds of mindfulness traits and other health
benefits are affected by the alignment of mindfulness session. For further research in
working memory, expanded measurement with a viariety of tests is recommended. The
connection between mindfulness, sustained attention and working memory is also a
subject that would increase the knowledge in this area.
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