The University Network

Mindfulness Can Improve Problem-Solving Skills

Mindfulness can increase the capacity to solve computer-engineering problems, according to a recent study conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Seville, Spain.

The paper is published in the Journal of Systems and Software.

What is Mindfulness?

In the field of psychology, mindfulness is to be fully aware of the present. The most common way to achieve mindfulness is by meditating or taking time out to be still in a calm place and in total silence. During meditation, the objective is to think about one thing, usually your breathing.

Previous neurological studies show that meditation stimulates activity in areas of the brain connected to different aspects of mental activity, such as attention and concentration. For this reason, some IT companies, such as Google and Intel, offer mindfulness programs to their employees.

Beatriz Bernárdez, associate professor of software engineering and information systems at the University of Seville and co-author of the study, was motivated by her own experience with mindfulness. After experiencing Zen meditation for the first time at a silent retreat in 2009, Bernárdez realized not only emotional, but also intellectual, benefits.

“Apart from being happier, I noticed an improvement in the ability to make decisions and to analyse situations with more clearness,” said Bernárdez. “For this reason, I thought that my software engineering students could also improve their skills in solving ‘conceptual’ problems through mindfulness.”

The Study

Since 2014, the researchers have conducted three experiments to test the relationship between meditation and problem-solving skills. In each experiment, they divided software engineering students in two groups, experimental and control.

The first experiment was for four weeks while the second and third experiments were for six weeks each. During each experiment, students in the experimental group took part in mindfulness sessions lasting between 10 and 12 minutes per week.

During each session, students first performed a mindfulness body scan. They practiced carefully focusing their attention on their breathing and ignoring any distraction, such as thoughts, feelings or memories that came into their minds.

“The meditation I practiced with my students during 4-6 weeks is meditation-oriented to educating attention, trying to make the students focus on one thing only—breathing—without entering into emotional or affective aspects,” Bernárdez said.

After meditating, students were asked to do conceptual modelling exercises, which is a normally difficult task requiring analytical skills, reading comprehension, and the ability to classify and organize concepts.

Before and after each mindfulness session, the researchers measured two variables: effectiveness (how well the students performed a task ) and efficiency (how quickly they did the correct part).

Findings

The researchers found that the students who practiced meditation in all three experiments were significantly faster at solving the exercises than those who did not.

In the first and second experiments, students who practiced meditation solved problems more effectively by about 10 percent, Bernárdez said. There was also an increase in efficiency — by about 37 in the first experiment and about 46 percent in the second experiment — according to Bernárdez.

The researchers claim to have found very relevant results in the third experiment as well. However, they cannot make them public until they receive acceptance for publication from the IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering Journal.

However, while each experiment shows improvement from meditation, the researchers saw subtle improvement only when they compared the data from all three experiments. They believe this can be attributed to the size of each sample, which is too small to measure significance.

The Next Step

The researchers hope to replicate their experiment in other universities to be able to generalize their findings. They are in discussions with some companies in Seville in the hope of starting empirical studies in software development companies.