How does meditation make the brain powerful? What is the difference between various meditation techniques? Why does the mind wander?
Without a causal account of the human brain, it is not possible for science to give coherent answers to these questions.
Following is the first ever explanation of how the mechanism underlying this thousands of years old phenomenon works based on the process of natural selection:
All types of meditation techniques work on a single principle: By restraining the thought process, may it be by focusing attention on something, like focusing on breathing, scanning different sections of the body, repeating a word or phrase, etc.
In detail: Because of unreliability of its perceptions and its engagement with constantly changing environments & conditions, the human brain is designed by the process of natural selection to deal with a large amount of information for its ongoing interactions to fulfil its goals of survival and reproduction.
Such information processing involves communication within and between system 1, which is non-conscious, and system 2, which is conscious.
System 1 is capable of processing a large amount of information simultaneously, as it is a parallel processor, whereas system 2 has the limitation of only processing one task at a time, as it is a serial processor.
Based on such limitation, system 2 (i.e. the self) is hard-wired to optimize its operations by processing multiple thoughts on different topics to fulfil its goals of survival and reproduction, which results into attention being continuously drifting between multiple topics in quick succession. The same is the reason why it is not possible to stop the thought process. It is a part of its evolutionary design.
Although it is designed for optimizing interactions to make the most out of the time available by the optimizing aspect of natural selection 1, those who do not know its purpose treat it as a negative feature and call it mind-wandering, which it is not.
How meditation works: When you make a decision, e.g. either turn left or right, go to work or not, etc., it is made by system 2 and executed by system 1. If it makes the unusual decision of reducing the amount of information that is being processed by restraining the thought process in some manner, as it is done in various meditation techniques, system 1 increases the intensity of its processing to restore it to the earlier, i.e. higher, level.
I call it “mental homeostasis”, as it is the mental equivalent of the process of “homeostasis”, which is defined as a “process by which the body reacts to changes in order to keep conditions inside the body the same”.
Due to brain plasticity, repetitively increasing the intensity of processing by meditating repetitively increases the processing power of the brain to higher levels on a permanent basis.
Different Meditation Techniques
The most preferred meditation technique is to focus your attention on breathing. Not only it is the simplest, but the most efficient method of meditating. Following is the reason why focusing on breathing is the most efficient method of meditation:
As explained earlier, thinking is a dynamic process which is designed to process interactions continuously by the optimizing aspect of natural selection 1.
In the process of meditation, breathing is the only available dynamic process which is unavoidable that can maintain such dynamism of thoughts, the reason being, you can, e.g. stop your legs from moving, but you cannot stop the process of breathing.
As there can be very limited number of ways one can restrain the thought process, all meditation techniques have variations that include such possible things, confirming the fact that all of them are based on restraining the thought process.
Other than mindfulness meditation, all meditation techniques have add-on rules and methods that differentiate them, but as long as meditation is concerned, they are of little or no consequence.
In mindfulness meditation, which can be clubbed with other meditation techniques, the meditator is instructed to attend to thoughts coming to his or her mind without reacting or making judgements on them.
How does mindfulness meditation help? As we make decisions based on the knowledge we have gained from past experiences and how we project them into the future, it is pretty much fixed what decision we will make given a particular set of circumstances.
Based on the same, we get habituated to react to our day-to-day experiences in a fixed manner. The strength of such habituation is proportional to the ease and frequency of their related tasks. With certain tasks, such habituation is so strong; we react to such experiences without giving them a second thought.
Nobody is perfect enough to claim that they always make the best set of decisions to reach their goals. That being the case, such fixed decision making can be disadvantageous, as it does not provide any opportunity to improve.
To benefit from the same, mindfulness meditation trains us to stop from habitually reacting to our day-to-day experiences, which we execute without giving a second thought, by putting such decision making on hold. In other words, it stops system 1 from hijacking the control of our interactions. Doing so helps us improve the quality of our interactions by giving us the chance to carefully plan our actions.
To summarize, all meditation techniques, including mindfulness meditation, work on a single principle – by restraining the thought process. When done on a regular basis, it makes the brain more powerful.
1 Optimizing Aspect of Natural Selection