Meditation Trains Metacognition

Summary: Some forms of meditation may train key skills of metacognition, serving as powerful tools for applied rationality. I expect aspiring rationalists to advance more quickly with a regular practice of mindfulness meditation.

The state of scientific research on meditation isn’t great. Although there’s evidence that it does something good—probably something involving down-regulation of negative affect—there are many basic questions1 that either haven’t been studied at all or haven’t been studied well enough to let me update much. According to a meta-analysis by Sedlmeier et al., one problem with evaluating the research is that it’s hard to pin down what meditation is, let alone what it does or why it does it. In their words,

...two of our main findings are that (a) meditation has a substantial impact on psychological variables, indicated by a medium-sized (e.g., Cohen, 1988) global effect, and (b) its effects might be somewhat stronger for negative emotional than for cognitive variables. Due to the lack of a comprehensive theoretical approach (and results from studies derived therefrom), it is still unclear how meditation works… Moreover, a closer look at the studies included in the meta-analysis revealed that they differed in many respects that might have affected the results.2

So I just want to be clear that I don’t mean in this post to wholeheartedly recommend daily meditation as the best possible use of 1/​24th of your time.

Nevertheless, my own experience and reports from several of my friends suggest a specific cognitive result from a certain flavor of meditation that will be very good news for rationality if we can reliably reproduce it.3 In a recent post, Julia Galef pointed out exactly what I consider to be far and away the greatest benefit I’ve reaped from my meditative practices over the years. She wrote,

Meditation seems to train you to stop automatically identifying with all of your thoughts, so that, for example, when the thought “John’s a jerk” pops into your head, you don’t assume that John necessarily is a jerk. You take the thought as something your brain produced, which may or may not be true, and may or may not be useful—and this ability to take a step back from your thoughts and reflect on them is arguably one of the building blocks of rationality.

I’d like to delve more deeply into how and why this could work. There seem to be multiple paths to establishing the central rationality skills comprising metacognition—several highly advanced rationalist I know have no background in meditation—so meditation is by no means a necessary condition for successfully applied rationality. I think it may, however, have the highest signal to noise ratio among methods for developing foundational metacognitive abilities. At a minimum, I expect that regular practice of certain kinds of meditation would help aspiring rationalists to advance more quickly.

What kind of metacognitive skills am I talking about?

How about an example. When you read these words, you’re probably hearing a little voice inside your head that’s reading them to you aloud, so to speak. Your relationship to this imaginary voice (aka “subvocalization” or “inner speech”) may be quite a bit more intimate than you realize. It’s likely with you not only when you read, but when you ride the bus home and think, “Maybe I’ll have steak for dinner”; it’s with you when you’ve had an awkward interaction with someone you admire and you think, “God, I must have looked like such an idiot”; it’s with you most of the time, in fact, during your waking hours and maybe even when you dream.5

Exercise One

This fact may be more salient for you if you try to turn it off for a while. Set a timer for one minute, and force yourself not to verbally narrate your experience. When the minute is up, jot down a brief note about how it felt. Three two one go.

No, really, don’t read the next paragraph ’til you’ve done the exercise.6

Even if you managed to go the entire minute without subvocalizing, it probably didn’t feel like the natural way of things. It probably took effort, and possibly a great deal of effort. But I predict that most of you didn’t go through the whole minute in total subjective silence. (If you succeeded and it did feel like the natural way of things, I’d very much like to know.)

Exercise Two

Now set the timer for a minute again, but this time don’t force yourself not to subvocalize. Simply notice when words arise in consciousness. Don’t bother doing anything with them. Just be aware of them.

Again, when the minute is up, make a brief note about how it felt. In particular, how did it differ from the first exercise, and how did it differ from your usual experience?

Exercise Three

Finally, notice that your present increased awareness of subvocalizations lets you change things about them that you couldn’t change if you weren’t aware of them. For example, you’re now reading this in the voice of Morgan Freeman. (You’re welcome.)

Now pick some other aspect of subvocalization to change—perhaps the accent, or the speed, or the pitch—and read the next sentence in that way. Set a timer for one minute, and experiment with things you can change about your experience of inner speech.

What does this have to do with rationality?

In general terms, what have you done in the above exercises? You’ve become aware of a mental process that usually runs in the background whether you like it or not. You’ve gained and exercised some degree of control over it. You’ve come up with and tested, in real time, alternative ways of running your own cognitive software.

Now, this has merely been a simple illustration. My point is not that swapping Morgan Freeman for yourself as official narrator would itself improve your daily life. (Although that may well be.) Rather, my point is that these skills are central to rationality and are cultivated by meditation. Those of you with a strong background in meditation probably did not learn anything important from these exercises, and wouldn’t have regardless of your rationality training. Stepping back from your experiences in a way that lets you examine them and modify them is so old hat, if you meditate a lot, that you may even have forgotten what it’s like not to have that action available as primitive.

This is extraordinarily valuable! There are three abilities that together form the bridge between knowledge of rationality and the application thereof. They are

  1. the ability to introspect and promote a sought cognitive process into consciousness

  2. the ability to not identify with any particular cognitive process you become aware of

  3. the ability to make changes to cognitive processes you’re aware of in media res

For example, even if you understand how important it is to make beliefs pay rent in anticipated experiences, actually doing that can be really hard. Why is it so hard? Possibly for a few different reasons, but prominent among them is the following. If you’ve thought something lots of times without ever explicitly identifying it as something you’re thinking, without putting much distance between yourself and the thought, your sense of self gets tangled up in it. It’s not nice to let go of something that close to you, even if it’s useless or harmful. It feels sort of like trying to kick out your own child when you know you can no longer afford to take care of her—and it feels distinctly unlike taking a broken blender to the dump, which is closer to what should really be going on.

Other directly related examples include noticing and tending to confusion, actually behaving as though you might be wrong when you think you might be wrong, and thinking about politics without your head exploding.

Note that merely willing problems solved is not a reliable way of solving them. Resolving to not identify with your thoughts isn’t the same as causing yourself to not identify with your thoughts. There’s a reason you identify with your thoughts in the first place, and it’s not because you decided to. If you don’t alter any of the mechanisms that actually give rise to the problem, nothing will change—which is why, I think, it’s possible to possess oodles of declarative knowledge about rationality without making a single significant improvement to your life.

One way or another, you have to get some distance between yourself and your thoughts and feelings if you want to let go of them or change them. That’s exactly what meditation teaches you to do.

What does this have to do with meditation?

There are many kinds of meditation. Some involve intense concentration on very specific sensations, like visualizations of geometric patterns, repeated phrases called mantra, the breath, or movements (not all meditation is done seated and motionless). There are interpersonal types of meditation that can involve maintaining eye contact with someone for extended periods, imagining someone hurting and nurturing the desire to help them, or sex. The kind I’m most familiar with is a form of Japanese Buddhist meditation called shikantaza, which translates roughly to “just sitting”. Although it comes with basically no instructions, as the name suggests, in practice it’s nearly identical to the most general form of “mindfulness meditation”.

Mindfulness is one of the most popular meditative practices in the West, and of the types I know about, it’s the one I expect to be most relevant to applied rationality. Though all of the above, in one way or another, teach the backward step7 that allows you to stop identifying with thoughts, mindfulness is only that. Exercise two above is a limited form of mindfulness meditation. Although there’s a whole family of practices that fall under the heading of “mindfulness”, what they have in common is the cultivation of awareness.

All I mean by “cultivation of awareness” is the power to broaden/​focus attention to encompass more things, or more specific things. I’ve often heard practitioners describe it as “openness to the world”. Ordinarily, we experience a lot of things on which we don’t bother to turn our subjective spotlights of attention, sometimes because they’re just not important, and sometimes because we actively avoid stimuli we perceive to be aversive.

Subvocalization is an example. Other examples are the sounds in your external environment, what you know about how those around you are feeling, the sound of your own breath and heartbeat, the sensation of flinching away from a painful thought, the temperature in the room, the colors and shapes that appear behind closed eyelids, and the sensation of confusion. I find it difficult to describe the most general form of this, because without analogy to more specific forms, all I’ve got is that it’s experiencing… what you experience. Which really just sounds like the default mode of living, doesn’t it? But in practice it can feel very different.

When you’re well practiced at noticing these things, at welcoming them into your attention, you’re acutely aware of not being them. And when you don’t feel as though you are your thoughts and feelings, it becomes emotionally easier to let go of them or to modify them. Changing your mind feels less like losing a part of yourself.

Further Resources

  • Sam Harris recently posted an excellent introduction to mindfulness meditation in the form of two audio tracks (one nine minutes, the other twenty-six). I recommend them pretty highly. They each guide you through a meditation session without any annoying religious or new-agey distractions.

  • I find this meta-analysis by Northoff et al. of neuroimaging studies of self-referential cognitive processing to be fascinating for all sorts of reasons. Chief among them is the light it sheds on how and why including clear-cut self/​other distinctions in models of human minds doesn’t always work so well. (Link is to a PDF.)

  • If you want to take a soaring leap across the bridge between knowledge of rationality and the application thereof, you simply must try a CFAR workshop. I did one of these back in April, and it was every bit as fun as it was effective (which was very).


1. Off the top of my head: What aspects of particular forms of meditation cause the various purported benefits? If we pinpoint those aspects, can we harness their corresponding benefits individually without committing to meditation as a whole? Can we improve upon them? Does meditation have different effects when practiced in a religious context? What is the relationship between meditation and hypnosis? How do the effects differ among different age groups? Does learning to meditate while young have any effect on adult meditation?

2. Sedlmeier et al. (2012). The Psychological Effects of Meditation: A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 138(6) 1139-1171.

3. I don’t consider lack of supporting double-blind studies much evidence against my thesis, largely because the result in question would only show up in tests of metacognitive techniques I expect not to occur to the vast majority of researchers just yet.

4. In case you’re wondering about my relevant background: I did Vinyasa yoga throughout high school, taught it during college, trained at a residential Soto Zen temple for a summer, have maintained a fairly regular practice of Zen meditation for about five years now, practiced Tai Chi (very casually) off and on for most of my life, and have a degree in religious studies with a focus on East Asian Buddhism.

5. Fun fact: You internally simulate your voice in parallel with actual talking.

6. Yes, you’re doing it right. If you’re trying to do it at all, you’re doing it right. The idea is to find out what it feels like to make the effort, not to beat the game. There is no game. Some of the comments below have me concerned that I may be contributing to the “meditation means being brain dead” misconception. This exercise isn’t meant to teach you the One True Way of Meditation. It’s just to point at certain kinds of movements your mind makes. Monks who have been meditating for multiple hours a day for decades don’t have completely featureless minds when they meditate. That isn’t even close to what meditation means to them. Beginners are given exercises along these lines because it’s an easier entry point, like training wheels. Eventually, counting breaths simply becomes irrelevant.

7. The Japanese “Su sube[karaku] mochi[iyo] eko-hensho no taiho o mochi-iyo,” from Dogen Zengi’s instructions for meditation (1227) literally translates to English (character-by-character) as “Remember/​employ of backward step turning light/​consciousness reflecting/​illuminating.” (Dogen loved wordplay, and the double meanings are intentional.) Though most translators render this something like, “Take the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate the self,” the characters for “self” and “inward” do not in fact appear in this part of the text. Thus, his central instruction for meditation is to step consciousness backward so it can be generally reflective. This is why I say that in practice shikantaza and mindfulness amount to the same thing.