Monthly Archives: July 2019

There Are Two Kinds of Categorization Researchers

Dual process accounts of cognition are ubiquitous. In fact the one thing you can count on is that there are two kinds of cognitive scientists: Those who think there are two systems and those who don’t.  My research has generally argued for the existence of two systems. Though the more I do research in this area the less convinced I am.

With that in mind, I really enjoyed reading this new paper from Mike Le Pelley and Ben Newell at UNSW and Rob Nosofsky at IU. They are commenting on an earlier paper by J. David Smith, Greg Ashby and colleagues. In this blog post, I’m going to review both of them, and argue that neither one of them gives us a complete picture.  Both are also missing a critical question.

The Multiple Systems Approach

Smith’s paper reported on an experiment in which they asked people to learn perceptual categories that either had a single dimensional rule, or a two-dimensional structure that could be learned without a rule. Subjects learned under one of two conditions. Either they received feedback immediately after making a classification,  or feedback was deferred and delivered after five trials in a row.

Screen Shot 2019-07-31 at 1.08.01 PM

The figure above, which I copied from their paper, illustrates the conceptual structure of each category set. Panel A shows the 1-dimensional linear boundary between the two clusters of exemplars (a rule) and panel B shows a 2-dimensional, diagonal boundary between the two cluster of exemplars,  which is not an easily verbalized rule.

The actual images subjects saw were pixel displays that varied in size and density. The figure below shows the full range, and you can imagine that in the single dimensional case,  you would learn to categorize slightly larger things as belonging to one group and slightly smaller things as belonging to the other group, and you would ignore density. For the non rule defined (information integration) categories you would incorporate both size and density. To leann, you see a single stimulus in the screen and respond with Category A or B and then feedback (or not).  This continues for a few 100 trials

Screen Shot 2019-07-31 at 1.10.53 PM

What they discovered was that when feedback was immediate, people learning the rule described set (panel B) tended to learn the rule and people learning the diagonal category set (panel B) learned the diagonal boundary, just as expected. But when feedback was deferred, it only seemed to affect the diagonal boundary. Most subjects who learned the diagonal category set with deferred feedback were unable to learn the diagonal boundary. Instead, most seem to learn some kind of single dimensional boundary that was suboptimal.  In the figure below, panels A and B show that immediate and deferred feedback did not seem to affect performance on the rule-based category set. Figure panels C and D show that deferred feedback seem to make it nearly impossible for participants to learn the correct diagonal boundary. Figure panel D shows that no subjects who learned the diagonal categories actually seemed to be using the optimal diagonal boundary. In other words, the deferred feedback ruined their performance.

Screen Shot 2019-07-31 at 1.12.25 PM

Smith and colleagues interpreted this as evidence for two systems that underlie the category learning process. One system relies on verbal working memory and is able to learn the rule defined structure. It’s not affected by the deferred feedback because subjects can hold the responses that they made in working memory until the feedback is delivered. But the diagonal case depends on the implicit associative learning system. This system relies heavily on a hypothesized dopaminergic learning system. In order for that to work, there needs to be a temporal proximity between stimulus, response, and feedback. When you disrupt that by deferring the feedback delivery you disrupt the learning process. Smith and colleagues argued this was one of the strongest associations in the literature.

They write:

“We hypothesized that deferred reinforcement should disable associative learning and the II category learning that depends upon it. Deferred reinforcement eliminated II category learning. There may be no comparably strong demonstration in the literature.
We hypothesized that RB learners hold their category rule in working memory, still
allowing its evaluation for adequacy at the end of the trial block when deferred
reinforcement finally arrives. Confirming this hypothesis, RB learning was unscathed by
deferred reinforcement.”

I read this paper when it first came out and I agreed with them. I thought it was a terrific case.

Evidence against the multiple system approach

The new paper that was just published by Mike Le Pelley and colleagues argues that the dissociation is not as strong as it seems. Or rather, it doesn’t support the existence of two systems. According to their approach, all of the learning happens within the same system but the more cognitively demanding the task is, the more likely it is to rely on some of the executive functions, or working memory.  The single dimensional rule is fairly easy to learn and so it’s not affected by the deferred feedback intervention. The diagonal, information integration category set is more cognitively demanding and so it is affected by the deferred feedback intervention. They went one step further. They asked a group of subjects to learn a third category set. One that is cognitively demanding but one that can be learned by explicitly verbalizable rule. I have used a category set like this in the past, and also argue that it engages an explicit category learning system.

Le Pelley et al’s  three different category sets are shown below. On the left, the single dimensional vertical rule. In the middle, the diagonal rule, and on the right a two-dimensional conjunctive structure.Screen Shot 2019-07-31 at 1.13.05 PM

They asked their subjects to learn images that were single blue lines on the screen. These blue lines varied in length (which corresponded to the X axis on the plots above) and the angle of the line on the screen (which corresponded to the y-axis on the plot above) They also asked subjects to learn these in either the immediate feedback condition or the deferred feedback condition, the same as Smith and colleagues.

Their data are shown below. As you can see, the deferred feedback did not interfere with the single dimensional category set. Participants are performing well in both conditions and the majority of them are using a optimal linear boundary (the “best fitting model”). And just like Smith et al., they found that the deferred feedback condition interfered strongly with performance on the diagonal set. Performance was reduced and people were less likely to use the optimal diagonal boundary.

Screen Shot 2019-07-31 at 1.14.54 PM

However there’s a twist: the deferred feedback also interfered with the conjunctive rule category set.  This undermines a multiple system approach. If subjects were learning these rule defined categories with an explicit verbal system that was not affected by the deferred feedback, performance on this categories that should not have been affected. but it was.  The figure shows that performance was reduced, and people were less likely to use the optimal two-dimensional conjunctive boundary when receiving deferred feedback. The main difference between that category set and the diagonal category set is that they are both complex two-dimensional complex structures.

Or as they write:

“These findings do not follow from Smith et al.’s multiple-systems account but follow naturally from a cognitive-demands account: The cognitive complexity and memory demands of diagonal and conjunction tasks are greater than for the vertical task, so deferring feedback will impair both two-dimensional tasks and may drive participants to a less-demanding unidimensional strategy.”

My Interpretation

My impression is that these are both really well done studies. The original paper by Smith et al. tested a clear hypothesis of the multiple systems approach. They equated their category sets for complexity and difficulty and only interfered with the delivery of the feedback. And consistent with the procedural nature of the implicit system, only the non-rule defined set was affected. As well, this result is broadly consistent with research from my lab, Smith’s lab, Ashby’s lab, and many others.

But are do these data imply two separate systems? Although the complexity of the conceptual structure was equated in Smith’s design, the representations that were required to learn the category set were not. People learning the diagonal rule had to learn more than one dimension and when Le Pelley et al. asked participants to learn a two-dimensional rule described set, they found evidence of deferred feedback interference. That seems broadly inconsistent with the multiple systems approach.  When feedback was immediate, participants could learn the conjunctive role and they did so by primarily defending a two-dimensional conjunctive rule boundary. When the feedback was deferred, their performance was reduced and they lost access to the two-dimensional conjunctive rule.

However these aren’t really compatible studies in my view. Why?

  • First of all the category sets, although similar in a broad sense, are not equivalent. The boundaries were more separable and the exemplars were more tightly clustered in perceptual/psychological space in Smith’s paper. The cluster of exemplars in Le Pelley’s work was broader and and more diffuse.
  • Secondly, there may be a difference between learning to classify a single line on the screen (Le Pelley) that varies by length and orientation compared to a rectangle (Smith) that varies in terms of pixel density and size. I don’t know if this makes a difference. There may be an emergent dimension in Smith’s case, some combination of size and density that is not controlled for.

These are not problems in and of themselves, but they do make it difficult to determine whether or not Le Pelley’s work is a clear or challenge to Smith’s work. It seems to be, but someone needs to run the exact same edition to see if Smith’s work is replicable. or the reverse, it might be worth looking at whether or not the pixel density rectangles allow for Le Pelley is work to be replicated.

One of the things I like best about Le Pelley’s work is that the data were collected online. and all of the data and modelling scripts are available and open. You can even look at an example of the study they ran and for yourself.  I hope to see more studies like this.  you may even see more studies like this from my lab. As we are designing some tasks that will work this way.

Unanswered Questions

I said at the outset I thought that they’re missing an important part of the question.  One of the most interesting things to me is how and why participants adopt different strategies. In some cases, there is a clear and easy optimal rule. But often only 60% or 70% of the subjects find that rule. Why? And those that don’t find the rule often use another strategy, one that is suboptimal. Why and how to they choose? What individual difference, cognitive difference, or local variable allows you to predict whether or not participants will find the optimal boundary? I think that’s a really unexplored question. Neither of these two studies get at that, and that seems to be orthogonal to the multiple systems approach it strikes me as an area ripe for investigation.

I’ll add it to my list…




Summer Running or Winter Running: Which is Better?

I love running outside, but each season is different. And where I live, Southern Ontario, we get quite a range, with summer high temperatures up to the mid 30Cs (mid 90s in F) and wintertime lows can be -25C or lower (-13F and lower). I run all year long, so I decided to compare the to decide which was the best season for running.

A few Caveats (YMMV)

First, it should be self evident that late September – early October is actually the best time for running. It’s the best time for a lot of things. The weather is beautiful. It’s not too hot not too cold. The air is usually crisp. The days are getting shorter, but not too short. And maybe there’s some evolutionary need to get out and run, as if we need to get out and gather nuts and game meat for the long winter. Who knows, I’m not an evolutionary psychologist so I’m just making that up.


This is why October is everyone’s favourite Month

Second, I have to acknowledge that I have the ability and privilege to run all year. I’m able and I’m reasonable fit for 49 years old. Not everyone has that. I am fortunate to live in a city with places to run. I am fortunate to live in a city that usually plows the sidewalks even after 2 feet of snow and even plows some of the running / multi-use trails also. Not everyone has that. As well, as a white, middle age male, I can run alone without worrying about being hassled, harassed, or feeling like a suspect. Not everyone has that privilege. And I run with my wife sometimes too: it’s great have a partner.

So let’s get to it. Which is the best season for running: Summer or Winter?


Summer is a like a long weekend. June is your Friday afternoon, full of promise and excitement. July is a Saturday, it’s fun, long, and full. Yes there’s summer chores to be done and in the back of your mind, you know the end is coming, but hey, it’s summer. August is Sunday. Enjoy your brunch, but soon it’s back to school, back to reality.

Weather: Its warm and pleasant some days, but miserable on other days. A sunny day at +25 is wonderful, but a humid day with a heat index of +44C is not fun to run in. You need to get out early or late to find cooler temps in those long, hot July weeks. If you wait too long, it’s too hot.

Gear: Shorts, light shirt, quick dry hat, water, and sunscreen. That’s it. You need the hat or something to keep sweat from pouring down your face. You need to carry water, also  because you’ll be sweating.

Flora: Summer is full of life and greenery here in the Great Lakes region. There are flowers and beautiful leafy shade trees. The scent of blossoms is in the air. But there’s pollen in the air too, and that can make it hard to breath. Some days in June, I sneeze every few minutes.


Summer trail runs can be sublime

Wildlife: Good and bad. You can see deer in the woods, and birds, rabbits, foxes and coyotes. That’s the good. But you will be bothered by mosquitos and flies. And if you run on trails, there are spiders and ticks. Many of my long trail runs include running through webs and brushing off spiders. Not fun. I also do a tick check.

Air: It smells great early on, as jasmine-scented summer breezes envelop you on an early morning run. But it’s also muggy, hard to breath, and ozone-y. Around here, the air can smell of pig manure (we live near agriculture) and skunks. Lots of skunks.

Risk of weather death: Low, but people do die every year because of exhaustion. Heat stroke is real possibility, though

Distractions: Mixed. On the one hand, as a university professor I have more flexibility in the summer because I am not lecturing. But there’s also more outside stuff to do. Lawn work, garden work, and coaching softball. The beach. Biking places. I feel less compelled to run on a day when I had to mow the lawn and take care of other summer chores.

Overall: Summer running is great in late May, and early June but it soon turns tedious and to be honest by July it begins to feel like a chore. The hot weather can really drain the will to move.


Hot humid by the Springbank bridge in London, ON.


Winters seem very long here, even in the southern part of Canada. The days are short; the nights are long. January can seem especially brutal because the holidays are over and winter is just beginning.

Weather: Extremely variable. More so than summer. You might get a stretch of “mild” days where its -10C followed by two weeks of -25C with brutal wind. You can run in that, but the toughest part is just getting out the door. Late winter is warmer, but that presents another problem. The sidewalk or trail will melt and thaw during the day and freeze as soon as the sun goes down. A morning run or an evening run means dealing with a lot of ice.


It’s cold and dark but so beautiful

Gear: Tights, windpants, hat, gloves, layers, layers, and layers. A balaclava and sunglasses might be needed. That means more laundry. Carrying water is not quite as crucial as in the summer, but you may still need to, because public rest areas will not have their water fountains turned on. The water can freeze, which is not good (and has happened to me). Ice cleats or “yak tracks” can help if you’re running on a lot of packed snow and ice

Flora: There will be evergreens and that’s pretty much it. No pollen but no shade either. And nothing to block the wind.

Wildlife: Mostly good, but there’s less of it. You’ll see cardinals and squirrels and even deer. No bugs or spiders or skunks. But in Canada, (London, ON) the geese will start to get very aggressive as they get closer to mating in the spring… Avoid!

Air: Crisp and clear. But -25C and below, it can take your breath away. You warm up quickly and it really feels great to breath the cold air.

Risk of Weather Death: Pretty low, but black ice is treacherous. You can slip and fall and really hurt yourself. Also, be aware that windchill is a real thing. A windchill of -45C is dangerous.

Distractions: Mixed. I’m busier at work, but not outside as much and so I feel more compelled to run.

Overall: Winter has many challenges, but running is offset by an elusive quality that getting outside will be an adventure.


The Winner: Winter running is better.

There are pros and cons to each season. But I find it easier and more enjoyable to run in the dead of winter than in the hazy days of summer.


I look happy, even after a long cold run.

One reason winter is best is how the weather extremes differ in the summer and winter. Unless I go out really early or really late, a morning run in the summer means that the weather gets objectively worse as I run. Try to do an 18km run at 8:00am and by 9:30 is really getting hot! You feel exhausted. Winter is the reverse. It gets nicer and slightly warmer as I go, so I feel exhilarated.

Another reason that winter is better is just a survival feeling. Winter feels like an adventure. I have to suit up and carry more gear and I might be the only one out on a trail. Summer, on the other hand feels like a chore. Like something I have to do. I have to get the run in before it gets too hot.

My stats bear this preference out.

In January I average 40-50km/week. In July it’s between 25-30km/week. My long runs are longer in the winter. I think its because I’m just not outside as much in the winter and so the long runs keep me sane. In the summer, I’m mowing, walking, coaching, and just doing more stuff. There’s less need to run.

So that’s it. Winter running is better than summer running. But this is just my opinion. What are your thoughts? Do you agree? Do you like running when it’s hot out? Do you hate being bundles up for winter runs?

In the end it does not matter too much as long as you’re able to get outside and enjoy a run, a walk, or whatever.



Mindful University Leadership

Academia, like many other sectors, is a complex work environment. Although universities vary in terms of their size and objectives, the average university in the United States, Canada, UK, and EU must simultaneously serve the interests of undergraduate education, graduate education, professional education, basic research, applied research, public policy research, and basic scholarship. Most research universities receive funding for operation from a combination of public and private sources. For example, my home university, The University of Western Ontario, receives its operating funds from tuition payments, governments, research funding agencies, and from private donors. Many other research universities are funded in similar ways, and most smaller colleges are as well.


Looking west over Lake Erie, Port Stanley, Ontario

Faculty are at the center of this diverse institution, acting as the engine of teaching, research, and service. As a result, faculty members may find themselves occasionally struggling to manage these different interests. This article looks at the challenges that faculty members face, paying particular attention to the leadership role that many faculty play. I then explore the possible ways in which a mindfulness practice can benefit faculty well-being and productivity.

Challenges of Leadership in the University Setting

Although many work environments have similar challenges and issues (being pulled in different directions, time management, etc.) I want to focus on the challenges that faculty members face when working at and leading the average, mid-sized or large university. The specific challenges will vary in terms of what role or roles a person is serving in, but let’s first look at challenges that might be common to most faculty members.

Challenge 1: Shifting tasks

“Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.” — Donald Knuth

I love this quote from Donald Knuth, a professor of computer science, because it encapsulates the main challenge that so many of us have. We want to be on top of things (teaching, questions from students, cutting-edge research) but we also want to be on the bottom: digging deeply into a problem and finding a solution.

The average faculty member has, at a minimum, 2–3 very different kinds of jobs. We’re teachers, researchers/scholars, and we also help to run the university. Within these broadly-defined categories, we divide our teaching time between graduate and undergraduate teaching and mentorship. Research involves investigation, applying for grants, reading, investigation, analysis, writing, dissemination. And running the university can make us managers, chairs, deans, and provosts and as such, we’re responsible for hiring research staff, hiring other faculty members, and managing budgets.

These three categories require different sets of skills and shifting between them can be a source of stress. In addition, the act of shifting between them will not always go smoothly and this may result in a loss of effectiveness and productivity as the concerns from one category, task, or role bleed into another. Being mindful of the demands of the current task at hand is crucial.

For example, I find it especially difficult to transition after 2–3 hours of leading a seminar or lecture. Ideally, I would like to have some time to unwind. But many times, I also need to schedule a meeting in the afternoon and find that I have only a short amount of time to go from “lecture mode” into “meeting mode”. Worse, I might still be thinking about my lecture when the meeting begins. Even among university leaders that have little or no direct teaching requirements, it is common to have to switch from and to very different topics. One day you might start the day answering emails (with multiple topics), a morning meeting on hiring negotiations, a meeting about undergraduate planning, then an hour with a PhD student on a very specific and complex analysis of data for their dissertation research, followed by a phone call from the national news outlet asking about the research of one of your faculty members. Shifting between these tasks can reduce your effectiveness. The cognitive psychology literature refers to this as “set shifting” or “task-shifting”, and research has supported the idea that there is always a cost to shift (Arrington & Logan, 2004; Monsell, 2003).  These costs will eventually affect how well you do your job and also how you deal with stress. It’s difficult to turn your full attention to helping your student with an analysis when you are also thinking about your department’s budget.

As academics, we switch and shift tasks throughout the day and throughout the week. The primary challenge in this area is to be able to work on the task at hand and to be mindful of distractions. Of course, they will occur, but through practice, it may be possible to both minimize their impact and also reduce the stress and anxiety associated with the distractions.

Challenge 2: Shared governance

One aspect of academia that sets it apart from many corporate environments is the notion of “shared governance”. Though this term is common (and has been criticized as being somewhat empty,) the general concept is that a university derives its authority from a governing board, but that faculty are also vested in the institutional decision-making process. This means that most universities have a faculty senate that sets academy policy, dean’s level committees that review budgets and programs, and departmental committees that make decisions about promotion and tenure, hiring, and course assignments.

From a leadership perspective, this can mean that as a chair or dean you are always managing personal, balancing the needs of faculty, students, budgets, senior administrators, and the public image of your university. There may not be a clear answer to the question of “who is the boss?”  Sometimes faculty are asked to assume leadership roles for a set time and will need to shift from a collegial relationship to a managerial one (then back to a collegial one) for the same people. That is, one day you are colleagues and the next you are his or her supervisor.

The challenge here is to understand that you may be manager, colleague, and friend at the same time. In this case, it’s very helpful to be mindful of how you interact with your colleagues such that your relationship aligns with the appropriate role.

Challenge 3: Finding time for research and scholarship

One of the most common complaints or concerns from faculty is that they wish they had more time for research. This is a challenge for faculty as well as leaders. Although a common workload assumes that a faculty member may spend 40% of their time on research, most faculty report spending much of their time in meetings. However, promotion and tenure is earned primarily through research productivity. Grants are awarded to research productive faculty. That is, most of those meetings are important, but do not lead to promotion and career advancement. This creates a conflict that can cause stress because although 40% is the nominal workload, it may not be enough to be research productive. Other aspects of the job, like meetings related to teaching and service, may take up more than their fair share but often feel more immediate.

In order to be effective, academic leaders also need to consider these concerns from different perspectives. For example, when I was serving as the department chair for a short period, I had to assigned teaching to our faculty. There are courses that have to be offered and teaching positions that have to be filled. And yet my colleagues still need to have time to do research and other service work. These can be competing goals and they affect different parts of the overall balance of the department. The department chair needs to balance the needs of faculty to have adequate time for research with the needs of the department to be able to offer the right amount of undergraduate teaching. So not only is it a challenge to find time to do one’s own research, a department chair also needs to consider the same for others. Being mindful of these concerns and how they come into conflict is an important aspect of university leadership.

Considering these diverse goals and trying to meet them requires a fair degree of cognitive flexibility and if you find yourself being pulled to think about teaching, about meetings, and about the workload of your colleagues, it is going to pull you away from being able to be on top of your own research and scholarship. The primary challenge in this area is to create the necessary cognitive space for thinking about research questions and working on research.

Mindfulness and Leadership

I’ve listed three challenges for leaders in an academic setting: switching, shared governance, and finding time for research. There are more, one course, but let’s stick with these. I want to now explain what mindfulness practice is and how it might be cultivated and helpful for academic leaders. That is, how can mindfulness help with these challenges?

What is mindfulness?

A good starting point for this question is a definition that comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work. Mindfulness is an open and receptive attention to, and awareness of what is occurring in the present moment. For example, as I’m writing this article, I am mindful and aware of what I want to say. But I can also be aware of the sound of the office fan, aware of the time, aware that I am attending to this task and not some other task. I’m also aware that my attention will slip sometimes, and I think about some of the challenges I outlined above. Being mindful means acknowledging this wandering of attention and being aware of the slips but not being critical or judgmental about my occasional wavering. Mindfulness can be defined as a trait or a state. When described as a state, mindfulness is something that is cultivated via mindfulness practice and meditation.

How can mindfulness be practiced?

The best way to practice mindfulness is just to begin. Mindfulness can be practiced alone, at home, with a group, or on a meditation retreat. More than likely, your college or university offers drop in meditation sessions (as mine does). There are usually meditation groups that meet in local gyms and community centers. Or, if you are technologically inclined, the Canadian company Interaxon makes a small, portable EEG headband called MUSE that can help develop mindfulness practice ( There are also excellent apps for smartphones, like Insight Timer.

The basic practice is one of developing attentional control and awareness by practicing mindfulness meditation. Many people begin with breathing-focused meditation in which you sit (in a chair or on a cushion) close your eyes, relax your shoulders and concentrate on your breath. Your breath is always there, and so you can readily notice how you breath in and out. You notice the moment where your in-breath stops and your out-breath begins. This is a basic and fundamental awareness of what is going on right now. The reason many people start with breathing-focused meditation is that when you notice that your mind begins to wander, you can pull your attention back to your breath. The pulling back is the subtle control that comes from awareness and this is at the heart of the practice. The skill you are developing with mindfulness practice is the ability to notice when your attention has wandered, not to judge that wandering, and to shift your focus back to what is happening in the present

Benefits of mindfulness to academic leaders

A primary benefit of mindfulness involves learning to be cognitively and emotionally present in the task at hand. This can help with task switching. For example, when you are meeting with a student, being mindful could mean that you bring your attention back to the topic of the meeting (rather than thinking about a paper you have been working on). When you are working on a manuscript, being mindful could mean keeping your attention on the topic of the paragraph and bringing it back from other competing interests. As a researcher and a scientist, there are also benefits as keeping an open mind about collected data and evidence which can help to avoid cognitive pitfalls. In medicine, as well as other fields, this is often taught explicitly as at the “default interventionist” approach in which the decision-maker strives to maintain awareness of her or her assessments and the available evidence in order to avoid heuristic errors. (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974) As a chair or a dean, being fully present could also manifest itself by learning to listen to ideas from many different faculty members and from students who are involved in the shared governance of academia.

Cognitive and clinical psychological research has generally supported the idea that both trait mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are associated with improved performance on several cognitive tasks that underlie the aforementioned challenges to academic leaders. For example, research studies have shown benefits to attention, working memory, cognitive flexibility, and affect. (Chambers, Lo, & Allen, 2008; Greenberg, Reiner, & Meiran, 2012; Amishi P. Jha, Stanley, Kiyonaga, Wong, & Gelfand, 2010; Amism P. Jha, Krompinger, & Baime, 2007) And there have been noted benefits to emotional well-being and behaviour in the workplace as well. This work has shown benefits like stress reduction, a reduction to emotional exhaustion, and increased job satisfaction.(Hülsheger, Alberts, Feinholdt, & Lang, 2013)

Given these associated benefits, mindfulness meditation has the potential to facilitate academic leadership by reducing some of what can hurt good leadership (stress, switching costs, cognitive fatigue) and facilitating what might help (improvements in attentional control and better engagement with others).


As I mentioned at the outset, I wrote this article from the perspective of a faculty member at large research university, but I think the ideas apply to higher education roles in general. But it’s important to remember that mindfulness is not a panacea or a secret weapon. Mindfulness will not make you a better leader, a better teacher, a better scholar, or a better scientist. Mindful leaders may not always be the best leaders.

But the practice of mindfulness and the cultivation of a mindful state has been shown to reduce stress and improve some basic cognitive tasks that contribute to effective leadership. I find mindfulness meditation to be an important part of my day and an important part of my role as a professor, a teacher, a scientist, and an academic leader.  I think it can be an important part of a person’s work and life.


Arrington, C. M., & Logan, G. D. (2004). The cost of a voluntary task switch. Psychological Science, 15(9), 610–615.

Chambers, R., Lo, B. C. Y., & Allen, N. B. (2008). The Impact of Intensive Mindfulness Training on Attentional Control, Cognitive Style, and Affect. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32(3), 303–322.

Greenberg, J., Reiner, K., & Meiran, N. (2012). “Mind the Trap”: Mindfulness Practice Reduces Cognitive Rigidity. PloS One, 7(5), e36206.

Hülsheger, U. R., Alberts, H. J. E. M., Feinholdt, A., & Lang, J. W. B. (2013). Benefits of mindfulness at work: the role of mindfulness in emotion regulation, emotional exhaustion, and job satisfaction. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 98(2), 310–325.

Jha, A. P., Krompinger, J., & Baime, M. J. (2007). Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, 7(2), 109–119.

Jha, A. P., Stanley, E. A., Kiyonaga, A., Wong, L., & Gelfand, L. (2010). Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity and affective experience. Emotion , 10(1), 54–64.

Monsell, S. (2003). Task switching. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(3), 134–140.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Science, 185(4157), 1124–1131.