Can neuroscience help us decide how to meditate?

Benjamin Zimmerman
10 min readJul 15, 2021
Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash

Over the past year or so, I have found myself developing opinions about meditation. I am not an expert meditator or a meditation teacher. I acknowledge and respect the long and ancient histories of meditative practice. Even so, I think about meditation a lot, and I believe that modern neuroscience can help people choose how to meditate.

To people newer to the practice, the idea that there are many choices about meditation that need to be resolved might come as a surprise. There are some widespread sets of instructions that make “meditation” feel like a single thing. These instructions usually sound like, “turn your attention to your breath in the present moment; simply observe thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they arise; approach these thoughts, feelings, and sensations with curiosity and without judgment, while re-directing attention to the breath.” In fact, many great meditation teachers wisely de-emphasize particulars to beginners. When starting a meditation routine, it can be more effective to be curious and build a consistent habit rather than getting bogged down by self-judgment about the quality of practice. However, as the meditator progresses, how one meditates starts to matter more.

In its essence, I think that the idea of meditation could be expanded to be more inclusive to encompass all solely mental practice. We humans can do a fantastic amount of work just inside our own brains. One of the fundamental realizations of meditation is that we can change our minds directly through mental work. A more liberal perspective about what comprises meditation is advantageous because it forces you first to ask what you’re trying to get out of the meditation practice. If I wanted to be a professional chess player, a beneficial “meditation” might be to play a lot of chess in my head. There is plenty of evidence in psychology and neuroscience that mental practice leads to tangible improvements in many areas. Even something superficially non-mental-seeming, like finger strength, can be improved through mental training. For many things (like finger strength), actual physical practice is optimal and leads to more significant improvements than mental practice alone. However, for many other abilities, mental practice can be hugely beneficial or even necessary. These abilities include training your emotional regulation…

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Benjamin Zimmerman

Neuroscientist whimsically musing about the brain, cognition, and reaching our fullest potential