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What Happens to the Brain When You Meditate (lifehacker.com)
246 points by zerny 1431 days ago | hide | past | web | 93 comments | favorite

If you are particularly fidgety and have trouble concentrating, here is a thought experiment that might help:

Sit in a room with minutes to spare and task yourself this: to get to the market and back from your house. Maybe you shop for some fruits or something.

Step into your mental realm imagining every step you have to do in this task. Changing your clothes, tying your shoe lace, locking your door...everything. Not in frames but in a continuous motion as in a movie. It could be boring and I have felt the strong need to snap out of it. It still is difficult to power through, imagining every step and "looking" at the trees and shrubs along the way, picking up and inspecting an apple and putting it in the basket, paying for the goods, etc.

The whole thing is much more difficult than it sounds if you are the kind of person who gets restless easily. With practice, it gets better. Hopefully this helps you get in the productive zone. Good luck!

That's a great tip. I occasionally sit through a somewhat exotic variant: I imagine I can take to flight like a bird (slow flight only, not like Superman) and mentally take off from the balcony and imagine what the town would look like from above. The end of the exercise would be taking a full trip and 'returning' home.

It's a bit more engaging to figure out the aerial view of a place you normally navigate only by road. It's very hard to sustain this practice for even a minute or two initially.

See my other response above (wrote that before I read this, though well after you'd made the comment): https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6286046

I wonder how many people use flight for this kind of thing.

I can tell you I came by it because I'd commonly see kites (as in birds of prey) drifting by, for hours on end, and I wondered what things would look like from their POV. Then when I actually tried to think like that (or imagine, I should say) in a sustained manner, it was unexpectedly hard; so I kept it around as an informal practice.

edit: it's interesting that we both mention "not like Superman". For me it's about going as slow as possible.

The technique that you outline is one that I discovered myself as an easy way to fall asleep. I think of it as "starting a dream".

hah, I thought I was the only one that did this! Though my usual go to dream-starter is either flight, or snowboarding.

With flight, I just imagine that I'm flying relatively low above the tree line (Iron Man style with my hands at my side, rather than Superman style with arms outstretched ... not sure why, but this matters to my brain :P ). Also, I start somewhere that I'm really familiar with such as my house or office and then I make sure to not follow the roads ... the thought of flying across blocks and lakes really makes me happy.

With snowboarding, I just imagine myself at the peak of a gigantic mountain. The terrain oscillates somewhere between greens and blues and is a chill winding experience.

I imagine going to the concert hall and listening to classical music. I find myself wanting to direct, but then the music is slower, more mechanical. When I let go and just listen, the melody gets faster and more complex, more enjoyable. Usually that lasts a few seconds and then I slip under.

You don't need no fucking App to start.

Sit down in comfortable position, close your eyes, try to concentrate on your breathing in and out (your mind will start to wander - keep coming back to the breathing). Repeat everyday.

You'll have the chance to "optimize" and "improve" your meditation experience later on. First, build the habit.

To add to this, one thing I found helpful was to count with every breath in or out, up to ten -- breathe in, one; breathe out, two -- All the way up to ten, then back to the beginning.

Having something so easy and menial, yet requiring constant attention helps immensely to keep the mind from wandering.

I try meditation for my ADD and counting helps. I still get distracted once I breath out but it gets better ;)

That's awesome. My practice is still all over the place. One day I am hybrid Buddha/Professor Xavier, the next I am a toddler after a gallon of soda.

I agree that it's better not to use an app, since you don't want to be dependent on a specific voice to get you going, among other things.

The technique you describe (which I also use) is explained more fully by Roger Wells in "Happy to Burn"[1] which I found out about from the "Mind Perfomance Hacks" book[2] originally.

[1] http://www.sankhara.com.au/shop/products/detailFree.html?Pro...

[2] http://www.worldcat.org/title/mind-performance-hacks/oclc/64...

Tip: Try to keep your eyes open. Closing your eyes makes it easier to become slouched, wander off and fall asleep.

I agree wholeheartedly with the rest of your post.

Many traditional meditation techniques recommend closing the eyes. For the reason that visual stimulation takes up >75% of our perception. Closing the eyes automatically makes it harder for our mind to wander off. Still hard enough, but at least you won't be distracted by those nice lights on the wall (or similar).

I have read some zen meditation material and I remember them usually suggesting to meditate with your eyes open, but not all the way open. If you are in the traditional mediation position, looking a few feet ahead, towards the ground with eyes about 25% open. However, being new to this and trying to learn, I have had better results with my eyes closed.

Yes, zen meditation is with the eyes partially open. About 25% like you said, but it should just be this natural state that the eyes get when you relax and star at the blank wall.

There are many traditions that also have an eyes-open approach. I'm constantly amazed by this propagation in the West of the idea that meditation has anything to do with the mind 'wandering off' (or not wandering off, e.g. extreme concentration or 'awareness' as is the current buzzword).

This is unfortunate because it tends to make practice feel difficult, as our minds naturally wander, and then come back, etc. People connect their perceived success at this with their experience of practice, and quit or go off on very strange and contrived tangents. The notion of success/failure is typically irrelevant in many traditional meditation practices.

I always started by closing my eyes, but found that having them open felt... better. More natural. Not exactly sure - i just started preferring it. FWIW, there are some popular books[1] that recommend the eyes open approach - which surprised me when I first read about it.

[1]: http://www.amazon.com/The-Joy-Living-Unlocking-Happiness/dp/...

Methods differ, of course, but keeping your eyes open is the standard practice in traditional zazen meditation.

I agree. Relying on an app and voice guide is a bad idea. You are supposed to not concentrate on anything, except for breathing, and having a voice guide would take away from that.

Although I cant speak for myself, I dont think this is a universal feeling since my friend exactly wants some one to guide her through. Alone, its easier for her to get distracted and bored but when someone's calm voice guides her through the practice, she can focus on breathing much longer.

If this works for her, that's amazing. There is no one true way to practice meditation but I always suggest people to start with the simplest way. Techniques come and go, the key is still maintaining the discipline to practice it.

Joining a community of practitioner is also very beneficial - this is how in the Buddhist traditions meditation is taught and discussed - however it's not always possible depending where you are.

Meditation though is not a silver bullet. If it works for you great, if it doesn't benefit you, move on.

Swearing is bad for your energy levels.

Swearing is bad if you think it is bad. Nothing is bad.

Downvoting you for a hollow false aphorism [second sentence], is that bad?

Though swearing is also being shown to reduce pain. Perhaps a vigorous bout of mid-meditation swearing will reduce back pain during a long session.

Yeah but it's good for your "I don't care cause I'm an awesome hacker" cred if you swear, and get angry at everything.

I'm going to upvote dodyg cause he's so fucking awesome!

I have done meditation for years now and found it to be very beneficial.

However, I find this article to be very Cargo Cult and am disturbed that nowhere in this entire thread has it been called out as such.

"Look! Meditation must do things because we can make these colored charts telling you about beta waves. What are beta waves? Well, it doesn't really matter, just think of them as bad, because look, meditation does things to your brain, okay??"

The benefits of meditation to mood, creativity, etc are pretty easy to verify for yourself, subjectively. It disturbs me that we feel that adding scientismic mumbo-jumbo gives it credibility somehow. What is presented in this article is not actual science.

There is actual science involving meditation and the brain, but it is in extremely early stages and is hard to draw conclusions from. Our understanding of the brain, in general, is very early! Please be suspicious of pretty colored charts showing brain activity.

> There is actual science involving meditation and the brain, but it is in extremely early stages and is hard to draw conclusions from.

IMHO the best place for information on the science of meditation is the Buddhist Geeks podcast. There are talks on YouTube from their annual conference, which is are also great. The talk this year from Willoughby Britton does a pretty good job outlining the current state of contemplative science:


Please be suspicious...pfft...Deepak "quantum healing" Chopra got invited to Google to sell his books. I gave up all hope after that.

I belong to a religious group where initiation into meditation happens at about 10-12 years of age for boys. This initiation ceremony is an important ceremony (called thread ceremony) in a male's life. After initiation, every male has to perform a ritual called Sandhya Vandanam [1] thrice every day for the rest of their lives. The ritual has different components. The two important components are Praanaayamaa (breath control exercise) and mantra meditation. A mantra is a Vedic Hymn that is chanted/repeated again and again (for pre-specified # of times). In the Sandhya Vandanam ritual the mantra that is chanted is the famed Gayatri mantra. The mantra is chanted with the following schedule:

Morning at sunrise - Praatah Sandhya - 108 times

Midday - Maadhyanika - 32 times

During evening twilight - Saayum Sandhya - 64 times

The Vedic definition of mantra is "mantaaram traayate iti mantrah". In English this translates to "That which protects the mind is called mantra".

When I was young, I used to perform this ritual regularly. Though I performed the ritual regularly, I used to wonder about the requirement of such a ritual. Over the past few years I have come to know some fascinating things about the ritual and also the Vedas. After gaining the insights, it is ironic that nowadays I do not perform the ritual regularly at all. This article has come at the right time for me to get back into the meditation routine.

[1] - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandhyavandanam

As far as I know, sandhyavandana is not a kind of meditation. Sandhyavadana is mostly japa. Meditation is dhyana. When people cite benefits of meditation, they are usually citing studies of mindfulness meditation. Perhaps you'll see some benefits from sandhyavandana/japa also, I doubt it, but that's not what the studies that laud meditation are talking about.

Mindfulness in Plain English is a readable and accessible introduction to meditation, available online at http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma4/mpe.html

I find it helpful to think of a muscle as an analogy for my brain. Thoughts are like contractions - sometimes they are purposeful when they are part of a movement, an extension of my will. But sometimes they are not; in that way the incessant chatter of the internal monologue, or worse yet, stress, is similar to a cramping muscle, a flood of contractions that come unbidden. Meditation, then, is similar to relaxation exercises, doing stretches or posture training - teaching your muscles how to be at rest. This can then also translate into efficiency and economy of motion when you choose to move, not to mention more energy, because all the useless contractions/thoughts haven't worn you out beforehand. Also, yoga makes a lot of sense when you think of it this way, because you literally do this for both your body and brain at the same time.

Is reducing beta waves actually a good thing? It might allow for focus and relaxation, but I wonder if that might do something like clear your working memory and make you less able to make connections between things. Could anyone that has a good grasp on this comment on whether this might be true?

"I wonder if that might do something like clear your working memory and make you less able to make connections between things."

Your list is sometimes in internal conflict with itself. I have excellent conscious concentration ability and food memory leading to sometimes getting stuck in local maxima for a given situation. Clear the working memory, remove the "stuck" and suddenly free to snap onto the global maxima for a given situation. Or sometimes not. Complex tools are not like screwdriver; sometimes you can't even tell what the right tool for the job is, much less expect it to work. Often enough, using a different tool works better than trying harder with one thats already not working.

Perhaps it's analogous to CPUs? Perhaps it's better to power down your brain when you're not really using it rather than keeping it running hot at full frequency? The idle mind being the devils workshop and all...

Perhaps (and again speculating) it allows currently active pathways to cool down, allowing different ones to activate. This is especially useful if you're trying to solve a difficult problem and seem to be going in circles along the same line of thought. Your inability to break out of the line of thought might at times be more neurological than cognitive.

The benefits of meditation (and any potential problems) do not result in permanent physiological changes. It's like makeup that purports to reduce the signs of aging - it only works if you keep applying it.

Try meditating on LSD.

umm... i think the whole "make connections between things" and getting the "AHA! Moment" depends on the ALPHA waves not the beta ones.

> More grey matter

Well as study shows [1] meditation not only thickens cortex in some parts of the brain but also makes it thinner in other parts. Just saying.

[1] http://scan.oxfordjournals.org/content/8/1/27.long

Interestingly enough, the parietal region (which is shown to be thinner in the meditation group) is shown to be thicker than average in the brains of mathematicians: http://www.ajnr.org/content/28/10/1859.abstract?ijkey=c47242...

Interesting because this is a rarely reported consequence. It seems no one would object to have denser grey matter, but if it is thinner somewhere, it feels like you lost something.

Perhaps it's because there is only so much expression in our genetics. Don't think of it as if you lost something. Think of it as if you are investing and building up in the areas with max rio. By max rio I mean it on all levels of genome. Individual, your family & our society. I also believe the results can compound over time.

As a side note, I was raised Roman Catholic. Although I have not gone to church since college I hear interesting sciency things now and then. One, which I don't have a citation for, is that nuns who are experienced at prayer exhibit similar fMRI results when they pray.

I don't really think you are 'losing' something in the literal sense when meditating. It is probably more akin to exercising/reshaping it. I was just commenting on the public perception.

What I was referring to was that our bodies can only produce and manage so much brain tissue. This is dictated by genetics. So if connections are managed in one area they will strophe in another.

I think lose is an ok word but not quite right for what's really going on.

> max rio

Do you mean ROI?


I wouldn't mind loosing some gray matter areas which makes me nervous, angry and lazy.

Smaller isn't necessarily worse (and vice-versa). Maybe its a refactoring process where some abstractions builds, rendering other sub-graphs unnecessary.


In the same vein as what everyone else is saying, perhaps what's being thinned out could be related to the types of activity within the brain that meditation seeks to ease, the racing of thoughts, short attention span, etc.

I'm skeptical of articles like this because they tend to draw conclusions from studies that only provide weak correlations. The only concrete evidence I can find is that meditation can help some people relax and temporarily reduce their stress levels. My experience confirms this but I prefer other means of achieving the same effect (like exercising).

"I prefer other means of achieving the same effect (like exercising)."

Other than the obvious muscle workout aspect, I found weightlifting to be highly meditative. Highly structured repeated form every other day, breath control, counting reps/sets, stare at the wall, repeat.

I do a fair amount of hiking / snowshoeing and that can be somewhat meditative. If you relax as you stroll down the trail and let your mind wander intentionally into pure nothingness rather than getting stuck on something specific...

My wife does Tai Chi and from what I see from the outside and from occasionally playing long, its basically slowly moving meditation.

Obviously if you define exercise as "soccer" or "bouldering" then this analogy is not going to work terribly well.

I agree with you about weightlifting and its meditative properties. I've also found that going against what you usually seen in a gym and NOT wearing headphones actually helps even more. The background noise is just that, background noise, as opposed to a focused sound.

I also rock climb, and I have found that it is possible to achieve the same state while bouldering or rope climbing, as long as the route is below skill level by a decent margin. I'll run the same bouldering route 4x and not even think about it, I just kind of "zone out" and let my body do the work.

I always enjoyed doing archery, alone, at dusk. With no other shooters, you can go at a pace that feels good, and let your thoughts settle only on one's actions at hand. This is something which I sorely miss doing.

I can highly recommend reading the Relaxation Response for a scientific treatment of meditation.

Much like exercise, if it came in pill form, everybody would take it.

Or, bring so called "mediation" in every aspect of your life. Pretend life is one big "meditation". And pretend you need no more.

If you are interested in meditation but wary of the eastern mumbo jumbo, I suggest checking out Jon Kabat-Zinn and his works on mindfulness from a scientific perspective.

Not to put words in your mouth but staying on topic you probably want his book titled "The Mind's Own Physician" in comparison to his book on mindfulness as applied to parenting, or his other books. He has written quite a few books on related topics.

He may have (recently?) written a book more specifically on topic than the one abov,e that I'm not aware of.

One of the biggest publishers of meditation products is MindValley (http://mindvalley.com). The story of its founder, Vishen is well documented, and really inspiring. He bootstrapped and grew his business to seven figures without external funds. His purpose is not only monetary; he seeks to "push humanity forward" with his groundbreaking programs.

That MindValley guy seems shady at best. After digging around their site for hours, you will be hard pressed to figure out exactly what do they do.

Not difficult at all - for example, Omharmonics is a set of mp3s based on brainwave entrainment that aid meditation. About $100 for five songs, which sounds expensive, but if they do what they claim to do then it's a downright bargain.

I know this is asking a lot, but would anybody like to weigh in with some explanation/evidence for the descriptions of those four parts of the brain?

The descriptions are generally accurate, although very broad. The reticular formation is part of the brain stem, responsible for supporting breathing, cardiac function, and other somatic functions. The most relevant function is it's control of alertness and circadian rhythms.

The thalamus does function as a 'gatekeeper', although that's a bad term, the level to which the thalamus processes sensory input isn't fully understood / agreed upon. It's more like a transit hub connecting all the various parts of the brain and sensory tracts. It receives a lot of sensory fibers from the eyes, nose, ears, tongue.

For the parietal lobe, 'orienting you in time and space' just means that the parietal lobe creates a 3D grid system that helps in coordinating muscle movements. This system is supported by sensory input (auditory and visual). The parietal lobe will receive input from other lobes as well as the thalamus.

The frontal lobe is fairly well described, it basically handles higher level thinking, moral decisions, etc. It receives input from other lobes, the thalamus, and the brain stem.

An important take away is that these are really non-specific anatomical regions, the thalamus has ~30 distinct regions all handling different things. The frontal lobe has numerous gyri (regions) with different functions ranging from executive to motor skills.

What he's saying is pretty bs too. The logical conclusion is not that meditation specifically reduces brain activity, it's more that any lack of sensory stimulation will cause brain activity to slow down because less neurons are firing, this can be achieved with other techniques as well, simply staring at a wall will do the same thing.

I can post sources if you'd like but this information (about the compartments of the brain) is very well accepted by those in the medical sciences.


seems to debunk

"The logical conclusion is not that meditation specifically reduces brain activity, it's more that any lack of sensory stimulation will cause brain activity to slow down because less neurons are firing"

Also, surely the presence of beta waves (12-30Hz) needs to be detected by an electroencephalogram (EEG), not fMRI? I thought fMRI has a much lower temporal resolution (~1Hz).

I think the image was mischaracterised. The fMRI will show changes in activity and if the image is actually from an fMRI post meditation then the authour may have just extrapolated from 'reduction in beta waves' to 'less activity on this colour gradient image'.

Perhaps the authour isn't really that familiar with the material?

I can't find a good article atm, but afaik there's an established correlation between fMRI activity (indeed about 0.5/1 slices per second depending on settings) and beta waves.

Btw beta waves can also be recorded using a single electrode: normally these get used to record spikes from a single neuron, but they also pick up the lower frequency bands of all surrounding neurons. The nice thing is this provides a more local view (iirc everything that is closer than a couple of mm around the electrode), whereas an EEG gets you 'everything' so it's more an indication about general brain state without giving information about which part is active.

>The logical conclusion is not that meditation specifically reduces brain activity, it's more that any lack of sensory stimulation will cause brain activity to slow down because less neurons are firing, this can be achieved with other techniques as well, simply staring at a wall will do the same thing.

This is gross misunderstanding of what happens when people meditate. Of course, the whole word meditation is very generic term. Saying that you meditate is like saying that you do sports.

Most traditional meditation techniques the meditation is exercise in concentration and awareness. You are active and constantly doing something with your mind even if you are relaxed.

As far as i understand, traditionally, meditation isn't about simply shutting down your mind as a whole. it is about: 1) Concentration (shutting down NOISE) 2) Shutting down thoughts from one source (or chaotic sources) to open up your mind to a particular source (some traditions mean opening up to ur inner self while others mean opening up to a higher source)

So the aim is to stop thinking random thoughts not for the sake of "no brain activity" but for a SPECIAL form of brain activity, which some traditions call "revelations"

The app is just to help you to get into a rhythm. I downloaded the app and really liked the user flow. Will definitely use to begin my meditation.

In my experience, I have seen a sea change in people who have started meditating. They are much more calmer and happy. There is a flip side as well. Many people get into a happy mode and start giving up in life.

I think those people are the ones who are getting into in an extreme way, for long periods at a time. And if they are "giving up on life", then they are probably using the euphoria it can cause to hide their problems the same way people use drugs or religion.

Maybe a good place to mention the book that got me started on meditation: http://www.amazon.com/Minute-Meditation-Quiet-Mind-Change/dp...

Practice Preksha Meditation http://preksha.com

It's free to learn.

Isn't everything free to learn? The learning material is the only part that costs anyhing.

Meditation, such a scam. I can't believe so many intelligent people are fooled by it. It's nothing more than a relaxation technique and that's it.

The studies about meditation are mostly of dubious quality and origin, and people draw unwarranted conclusions from them.


Oh well.. you have a blog to backup what your are saying... pro-meditation "quacks" have been told! Internet: 1 Meditation: 0

I think you have to pause and reflect for a minute when you say things like: "I can't believe so many intelligent people are fooled by it". Maybe they aren't the ones being foolish... ?

I think, just like a religion, it's not really the skeptics job to 'disprove' the theory. I think the job of the ones promoting it is to prove it.

A link to skeptics dictionary: http://www.skepdic.com/tm.html

TM recruiting literature is full of charts and graphs demonstrating the wonders of TM. Things like metabolic rate, oxygen consumption rate, bodily production of carbon dioxide, hormone production, brain waves, etc. are measured and charted and graphically presented to suggest that TM really takes a person to a new state of consciousness. Some of the studies done by TM scientists simply show that some of the same physiological results you can achieve by relaxing completely are achievable by TM. Nevertheless, according to TM advocates, tests have shown that TM produces "neurophysiological signatures that are distinctly different from relaxation and rest "[Judy Stein, personal correspondence]. Critics disagree.* The particular value of these physiological changes one can achieve by meditation have not been shown to be unique to transcendental meditation.

EDIT: Another interesting read: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2013/03/08/r...

"The Transcendental Meditation movement publishes scores of "peer-reviewed" articles in minor journals attempting to prove the medical benefits of their seated chanting. Reputable studies show that there are, however , no benefits beyond standard relaxation techniques." Source:http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Transcendental_Meditation

Umm... what about non "Transcendental Meditation"? Or are you just finding one perceived misuse and applying it to everything? (Does skepdic.com have an entry on that particular fallacy?)

TM is one of the most widely practiced, and among the most widely researched meditation techniques.[7][8][9] Source: Wikipedia

So it just makes sense to talk about that one. The others ones aren't really researched that well. Which variation would you prefer?

If you're going to call meditation a "scam," it's your responsibility to survey the field and know what you're talking about.

Even without any knowledge about meditation it should be clear that attention control = brain activity, brain activity = brain rewiring (relearning). Rewired brain = different behavior and different thoughts. One meditation may yield insignificant rewiring, but make it routinely, and the effect adds up. Science will catch up later, because we all know it is difficult to quantify and measure anything related to brain.

Do you derive "mostly of dubious quality" from this angry blogger's "I've read some of these studies?"

These anti-quackery people aren't really operating in full scientific rigor mode.

For more information, see my post: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6284735

Saying meditation is a scam is sort of like saying religion is a scam. It may be true objectively, but if it works, it works.

And why would you want to bring religion into this discussion?

The benefits of meditation is well documented. In fact, a Scientific American article published Oster's research papers on brainwave entrainment in aiding meditation way back in July 1973 - http://neuroactivator.com/blog/brainwave-entrainment/

There are dubious claims about the benefits of meditation floating around though. I've seen a business peddling a "meditation-based program" which claims to cure cancer. Made me sick to the stomach.

> I've seen a business peddling a "meditation-based program" which claims to cure cancer.

That's more than shocking and depressing -- i's often illegal. If a person makes such a claim within the covers of a book, it's legal, but if he makes the claim as part of an advertisement, promotion or speech, he can be prosecuted for (among other things) practicing medicine without a license.

Please get lost with your shallow unscientific attitudes that are devoid of any critical thinking or logic. Yes, people with Nobel prizes, intelligent people, professors, scientists are being fooolish while you with a blog have disproved all of them. Huzzah.

Life Pro Tip: If a bunch of people smarter than you believe in something, maybe it is time to stop and critically think.

In this post, i give more information:


The specific location of the fallacy demonstrated is probably in the definition of meditation as relaxation. Probably a better definition would be something along the lines of practicing a mix of self discipline and self awareness introspection.

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