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Marieke van Vugt

Meditation: reducing noise in your brain or improving policy?

I recently read a very interesting paper by Shadlen and colleagues, who discussed the neural correlates of decision making. In this paper they discussed the issue of responsibility: if our brain is fully deterministic, and our actions are governed by our brain, then can we said to be responsible for our actions? In particular, if there is a lot of noise in our brain, and that causes us to accidentally commit a negative action. So the question is: what are we to do?


Luckily, the meditation teachings tell us we can do something about the noise in our brains: by practicing again and again focusing on an object of meditation, we become less distracted, less mindless, and this is likely to reduce the noise in our brain (see also van Vugt & Jha (2011) ). The types of meditation in which we focus on an object repeatedly are thus very helpful to calm down our noisy monkey mind, and have as an added benefit that we are less likely to randomly perform "irresponsible actions." But of course this type of meditation is quite difficult and reducing our distraction often takes years of sustained practice.

Therefore, reducing noise with shamatha meditation only helps to a certain extent, but the punch line of the article mentioned above suggests another approach: we can also make sure that our brains implement the correct policy in all situations. What does that mean? A policy is used to denote a particular course of action taken in a certain situation. It sort of denotes what your most automatic tendency is. The author's argument is that although we cannot always be sure what the noise in our brain does, and therefore what the consequences are of that, we can be held responsible for the policies that our brains implement. We have to be sure that our brain is wired up to do more positive actions and to avoid doing negative actions. Now this is where other types of meditation come in that are more discursive in nature. Those are the types of meditation in which we practice kind thoughts towards ourselves and others, such that those become the more prevalent policies when we have to decide. But also analytical meditation in which we think through certain lines of reasoning about the way the world works, or about the consequences of certain thoughts and emotions for ourselves and others can change our policies. I personally sometimes find these more contemplative types of meditation easier, because my busy monkey mind has something to do. This also shows how shamatha meditation in which one focuses on training attention, and analytical meditation are quite complementary.