We use our brains to think about things, solve problems, and make decisions. For most people, it’s counterintuitive to sit and use your brain to do nothing. However, Professor Vishton recommends that you spend about 20 minutes a day doing just that.
Meditation and Religion
There’s a wealth of evidence that if you spend time in meditation: sitting with your eyes closed and focusing on your breathing or on relaxing your body, then your brain will work better. You’ll be happier, less subject to stress and anxiety, more creative, and generally healthier. There are different types of meditation, and you can find the one that works best for you.
First, it’s helpful to understand the history. The art and practice of meditation is older than cognitive neuroscience by many centuries. Indeed, it’s older than science itself.
Most historians and anthropologists believe that the earliest meditation was associated with religious practice. When you spend an extended period of time engaged in a religious ritual, you are typically engaged in meditation. If it’s a complex ritual, the process of learning to perform it properly naturally involves a lot of focused mental and physical activity.
The nature of most religious practices is that they’re repeated many times in the same way each time. As you become well-practiced in performing any ritual, it becomes automatic. Your brain can perform it largely on autopilot, leaving your conscious, attentive mind to think about other things, or nothing at all.
Types of Meditation
Meditation is one of those terms that’s a single word but actually captures a broad category of very different activities. If you sit cross-legged in the lotus position chanting a series of mantras, you could describe this as meditating.
Going to church and kneeling quietly could be considered prayerful meditation. If you’re trying to solve a hard programming design problem, you might meditate on it for a few minutes—or longer—before you start typing commands on the keyboard. All of these very different practices could be accurately called meditation.
Some researchers have placed the many different types of meditation into two broad categories: concentration meditation and mindful meditation. Both types of meditations typically involve sitting quietly in a place that’s relatively free of distraction.
Concentration meditation involves picking something and focusing your mind on that thing as completely as possible. Many concentration meditators focus on keeping their breathing steady and smooth.
One thing you may hear a lot in this domain is the notion that breathing is continuous, progressing smoothly from an exhalation to the next inhalation and so on, without ever completely stopping. Some concentration meditation focuses instead on a particular word—a mantra—repeating it over and over in the mind.
“I started by suggesting that it’s helpful to not think for 20 minutes a day,” Professor Vishton said. “If you’re engaged in concentration meditation, it doesn’t sound quite right to say that you’re not thinking.”
On the contrary, you are engaged in thought. However, by focusing your thoughts as completely as possible on that one thing—whatever it is—you stop thinking about all the other things that would normally occupy your mind.
The other category is mindfulness meditation. It is, in some respects, the opposite of concentration meditation.
During mindfulness meditation, one seeks to be aware of one’s self and one’s surroundings, but without thinking about anything in particular. This notion of not thinking is somewhat foreign to most people.
Our brains naturally tend to wander from thought to another related thought to another one all the time. This flow of ideas is what psychologists have often referred to as our stream of consciousness.
Mindfulness meditation seeks to stop that process. When you sit and don’t think for a few moments, especially if you haven’t practiced this a lot, your brain will naturally, eventually, start to think about something.
Some external thought will intrude—some thought about your plan for the day or some event in the news. When that happens and you become aware of it, you relax and intentionally stop thinking about it.
With practice, most mindfulness meditators report that they can get better and better at this. They go for longer and longer periods in between needing to intentionally interrupt one of those thought processes.
Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.