The Scientific Power Of Meditation

In a talk on his excellent meditation app, Sam Harris points out that he would recommend that people meditate even if there were no scientific evidence that it was good for them. I’ll quote him directly here because that’s the kind of statement that could get a meditation teacher in trouble:

There are studies that suggest that meditation improves immune function, or reduces stress. Or that it’s associated with less age-related thinning of the cerebral cortex.

Well, having a good immune system, and reducing stress, and not suffering neuro-degeneration are good things, in general. But those studies might fail to replicate tomorrow, and should that happen, my recommendations in this course would not change at all. 

There really are deeper reasons to meditate. And to live an examined life in general. 

Sam goes on to make an analogy with reading. Reading certainly can reduce stress, but depending on what you’re reading it can also increase it. But framing the benefits of reading as stress relief is an odd way to talk about it in any case. Reading would be worthwhile even if it was somehow actively bad for you.

Luckily, meditation isn’t bad for you. In fact, the list of scientifically recognised benefits is surprisingly long. In the video above, AsapSCIENCE lays out an extensive breakdown of the benefits of a regular meditation. From the expected changes in brain chemistry, function, and mood, to more unexpected changes such as improved immune and cellular function.

I’m always wary of presenting meditation as a panacea. Meditation won’t fix all of your problems or make you rich or make you more attractive to your gender of choice. But it is a uniquely powerful way of exploring your relationship with the world. And that, in turn, provides the opportunity to make choices which improve that relationship. This is the true value of meditation. All the health stuff is just a cherry on the cake.

Daniel Dennett On Reductio Ad Absurdum

Reductio ad absurdum might sound like a spell from the Chamber of Secrets, but it actually refers to the practice of testing an argument by pushing it to its logical extremes.

Perhaps the most well known example is that favourite if parents everywhere: “if your friends all decided to jump off a cliff, would you do it too?”

But reductio ad absurdum does have more intellectual applications. in fact, as Daniel Dennett explains in this video, Galileo used reductio ad absurdum to demonstrate that light objects and heavy objects must fall at the same speed (accounting for air resistance) all the way back in the 15th Century:

Let’s suppose that heavier things do fall faster than light things. Now take a stone, (A), which is heavier than another stone, (B).

That means, if we tied B to A with a string, B should act as a drag on A when we drop it, because A will fall faster, B will fall slower, and so A tied to B (A+B) should fall slower than A by itself. But A tied to B is heavier than A by itself, so A+B should fall faster.

If lighter objects fall more slowly, A+B should fall both faster and slower than A by itself.

Honestly, if there wasn’t video evidence of a hammer and a feather falling at the same speed on the moon (where there’s no air resistance), I still wouldn’t be able to wrap my head around this…

"The greatest enemy of knowledge isn’t ignorance, it’s the illusion of knowledge."
Reality Is Not What It Seems – and Neither Are You.

To say “it’s easy to overlook the fact that our perception isn’t the same as reality,” is perhaps the greatest understatement of all time. It’s almost impossible not to overlook it. Not overlooking it takes dedicated effort which still only allows us to overlook it for brief periods.

Everything we experience, from sounds, to smells, to the words on this screen, even the feeling that we are a single cohesive self, is a construction of the mind. An attempt to make sense of an influx of various vibrations and energy frequencies. This article by Anil Seth captures the idea with an eloquence I’ve not seen before:

…imagine being a brain. There you are, locked inside the bony vault of the skull, trying to figure out what’s out there in the world. There’s no light in the skull; there’s no sound either. It’s completely dark and it’s utterly silent. Your eyes and your ears just deliver streams of electrical signals to the brain.

These signals don’t come with labels attached – “I’m from a cat! I’m from a coffee cup!” – they are just electrical signals, signals which do not themselves have any shape, color, or sound. Therefore, in order to figure out what’s out there in the world, the brain has to combine these ambiguous sensory signals with some prior “expectations” or “predictions” about the way the world is. And that’s what we perceive – the brain’s “best guess” of the causes of its sensory signals.

How The Brain Rewires Itself Through Meditation.

Meditation is still widely seen as a fairly esoteric practice. It’s poorly understood by the majority of people, largely because it’s poorly understood, or explained, by many practitioners. Luckily, science is catching up. There’s already a brand scientific literature about the benefits of meditation, and it’s growing.

…Self-directed neuroplasticity, then, is the ability for the brain to change itself depending on how you direct your thoughts and attention. The “self-directed” piece refers to your ability to intentionally shape your brain by using it in a specific way.

For example, thinking positive thoughts has been shown to produce epigenetic changes in the brain. Whatever is on your mind today is building your brain of tomorrow. That can be good or bad depending on the mindset that you’re engraving into your brain.

Why our senses are fine-tuned for utility, not for ‘reality’.

Cognitive neuroscientist Anil Seth on the gap between conscious experience and objective reality:

…I’m also not saying that everything is in the mind. I think this is an important qualification or distinction. ‘There is an objective reality out there, at least as far as I know. But it’s how that reality appears in pour experience which is always a construction.

Watching the conversion of meditative and scientific views of perception is really exciting.