Two Weeks of Meditation can Reduce Mind Wandering And Improve Mental Performance.

[This post first appeared on LessWrong]

There are any number of reasons why aspiring rationalists might be interested in mindfulness meditation. Cultivating an ability to observe thoughts without being swept away in them could help in noticing when you’re confused, spotting biases or motivated cognition, and, if you are skilled enough, actually changing your mind. I’ve been on a couple of retreats myself, and I value meditation because it’s a useful technique with a lot of field testing that can be studied free of the religious context it generally comes packaged in. The results have been positive — I’ve learned what a mess my mind really is and my metacognitive awareness has improved noticeably.

Recent research suggests that we can add improved cognitive functioning to the list (Mrazek et al., 2013).

There is no shortage of researchers and individuals interested in better thinking, and perhaps the most effective way of doing so is to “target a cognitive process underlying performance in a variety of contexts”. A great example of such a process is “the ability to attend to a task without distraction”, as unrelated thoughts compete with the job at hand for limited working memory. Based on this it makes sense to hypothesize that, if mindfulness training can reduce mind-wandering and distractedness, it ought to boost mental performance.

Psychologists at the University of California Santa Barbara examined this hypothesis using a test of reading comprehension and a test of working memory capacity. Forty eight subjects, all undergraduates, were given two tasks: one, a modified version of the GRE verbal section and two, a test of working memory called the operation span task. The verbal section simply had all the vocabulary questions removed, while the operation span task alternates something that must be memorized (like a letter) with something irrelevant (like an equation which must be evaluated as true or false). If compared to someone else you can hold a longer string of memorized letters in your mind while also accurately evaluating equations, then you have a better working memory.

Importantly, during these tasks a couple of different techniques were used to assess mind-wandering, including asking subjects to assess themselves after the fact and asking them semi-randomly during the task.

Then the subjects were divided into a group which attended a two-week class on nutrition and a group which attended a two-week class on mindfulness meditation. Meditation instruction was pretty straightforward:

“Each class included 10 to 20 min of mindfulness exercises requiring focused attention to some aspect of sensory experience (e.g., sensations of breathing, tastes of a piece of fruit, or sounds of an audio recording)…Classes focused on (a) sitting in an upright posture with legs crossed and gaze lowered, (b) distinguishing between naturally arising thoughts and elaborated thinking, (c) minimizing the distracting quality of past and future concerns by reframing them as mental projections occurring in the present, (d) using the breath as an anchor for attention during meditation, (e) repeatedly counting up to 21 consecutive exhalations, and (f) allowing the mind to rest naturally rather than trying to suppress the occurrence of thoughts.

Two-weeks later, the groups were tested again and it was found that:

relative to nutrition training, which did not cause changes in performance or mind wandering, the mindfulness training led to an enhancement of performance that was mediated by reduced mind wandering among participants who had been prone to mind wandering at pretesting.

I couldn’t help but wonder about how much of a positive effect could be had by someone who didn’t actually do the meditation. An interesting additional experiment to have done would’ve been explaining (b) and (c) (in the first block quote) to participants, asking them how much their minds wandered semi-randomly during a task and then after a task, and testing them again two weeks later. Is noticing the problem enough to get a partial solution, or does flexing your attention add something that you can’t get any other way?

This is good news for those of us who would like to get the most out of our brains in an age before really high-octane cognitive enhancements are available.

Being Foreign and Being Sane

[cross-posted at LessWrong.  This post was written for a particular audience, so it may be difficult to parse for those who are not familiar with LessWrong.  But it’s accessible to anyone who follows the links.]

I’ve been reading Less Wrong for a while now, and have recently been casting about for suitable topics to write on. I’ve decided to break the ice now with an essay on what living and working abroad in Korea has taught me which carries over into studying rationality. While more personal than technical, this inaugural post contains generalizable lessons that I think will be of interest to anyone trying to improve their thinking.

You may be skeptical, so let me briefly make my case that traveling offers something to the aspiring rationalist. Many have written about the benefits of traveling, but for our purposes here is what matters:

Being abroad can make certain important concepts in rationality a part of you in ways studying can’t match.

It’s easy to read — and to really believe — that the map is not the territory, say, without it changing how you actually act. Information often gathers dust on the shelves in your frontal lobe without ever making it into the largely unconscious bits of your brain where so much of your deciding takes place.

With this in mind travel can be seen as part of the class of efforts to learn rationality without directly studying the science, instead doing something like playing Go or poker, for example. I don’t know for sure, but such efforts could hold the promise of teaching us to incorporate insights into emotional attachment, statistical probabilities, strategy, maximizing utility, and the like — things we’ve known for a long time — into our instincts, deep down where they can actually change how we behave.

I say all this because what living in a foreign country has given me is not so much a software update which has remade me into a paragon of rationality, but rather a hearty appreciation for certain facts which might make my thought-improvement efforts more fruitful. No doubt many of you have already long-ago internalized all of this, and for you I won’t be saying anything very profound.

Nevertheless, here is what I’ve learned:

1) You are vastly more complicated than you think you are.

The proposal for the Dartmouth conference of 1956, considered by some to be the birth of the field of AI research, had this to say:

An attempt will be made to find how to make machines use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves. We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer.

Not to deny that considerable progress has been made in the past half century, but I think we can all agree that this thinking was just a tad bit optimistic.

I’m not an expert on AI research history, but it seems reasonable to assume that these proto-AI researchers perhaps didn’t appreciate how complex humans are. You look at a triangle and you see a triangle; you reach for a coffee cup and grasp it; you start speaking a sentence and finish it with only the occasional pause. What could be simpler? We all forget our car keys sometimes, and some of us know a little bit about bizarre neurological problems like aphasia, but still. In general we function so well that it never occurs to us that the things we do might actually be difficult to implement.

The problem runs deeper than this, though, because there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of techniques for elucidating this complexity from the inside. If there were, neuroscience might’ve been discovered a millennium ago in East Asia by Buddhist adepts. But instead our efforts at aiming the introspective flashlights on the machinery of our minds are thwarted by their presence totally outside our conscious awareness.

Well, if you ever feel like you’re not fully appreciating the intricacies of your wetware, sit in a coffee shop or bus stop in a foreign country while eavesdropping on people whose effortless bantering could not be more inscrutable, and you’ll have it impressed upon you. Alternatively, try to explain to someone with little-to-no English knowledge what something like “simple” or “almost all of” means. Even without a bit of neuroscience training you’ll start to get a grasp on the vastness of the gears and levers that make every utterance possible.

This insight, at least for me, seems to creep into the rest of your thinking life, though in my case it’s hard to tell because I’ve always pondered things like this. It isn’t a far leap from here to see the potential value of research into topics like Friendly AI. If human language and vision are complicated, what are the chances that human value systems are simple? If you didn’t manage to notice your retinal blind spot or the mechanisms by which you conjugate verbs in your native tongue, what are the chances that you aren’t at least a little mistaken about your true goals and desires and how best to achieve them? Exactly. So maybe it’s time to start reading those sequences, eh?

2) Don’t be bewitched by words

Obviously if you go to a country where English or a different language you’re already fluent in is spoken, this won’t apply as much. But my experience has shown me that living in and learning a foreign language bestows several valuable insights on those intrepid enough to stick with it. Simply put, a sufficiently reflective and intelligent person could independently figure out about half of the sequence A Human’s Guide to Words just by being in a foreign country and thinking about the experience.

First you’d have to go through the shocking revelation that so much of what you say is a fairly arbitrary set of language conventions, and then you’d begin to relearn how to communicate. You’d come to realize that words are mental paintbrush handles with which you guide the attention of other humans to certain clusters in thingspace, and that they are often disgusied queries with hidden connotations. This will be triply reinforced by the fact that you’d often have to resort to empiricism to get your point across – accompanying the word ‘red’ or ‘chair’ by actually point to red things or chairs. If you’re spending time with natives the inverse will happen, and they will have to point to the parts of the world that words represent to communicate. You’ll have a head start in replacing the symbol with the substance because you’ll be playing taboo with nearly every word you know. Since you’ll be doing this with low-level language, it’ll require elbow grease to port this into your native tongue when discussing topics like free will. But if you can avoid slipping into cached thoughts, the training you received when you were a foreigner will likely prove useful.

Beyond this, however, is the tantalizing possibility that we may be more rational when we think in a foreign language, perhaps because it increases reliance on the slow, analytic System 2 at the expense of the rapid-fire, emotional System 1. Psychologists from the University of Chicago tested this idea using English speakers proficient in Japanese, Korean speakers proficient in English, and English speakers proficient in French (Keysar, hayakawa, & An, 2011). In the first few experiments participants were randomly sorted into two groups, one of which was given a test in their native language and one of which was given a test in the foreign language. These tests were designed to elicit a well-known tendency for humans to differ in their risk preference depending on how the situation is framed.

Here’s how it works: imagine that you turn on the news today to find out that an exotic new disease is ravaging Asia, with an expected final death toll of 600,000. The governments of the world decided that the best solution would be to design two separate drugs, and then to randomly select one reader of Less Wrong to decide between the two. Your number came up, and now you have a choice to make.

Drug A is guaranteed to save 200,000 people. Drug B has a 33% chance of saving everyone and a 66% chance of saving no one.

This is called the gain-framing, because what’s emphasized is how many lives you’ll save, or gain. When framed this way, people often prefer to administer Drug A. But studies find that if the same problem is loss-framed – that is, with drug A it is guaranteed that 400,000 people die while with Drug B there is a 33% chance that no one will die and a 66% that everyone will – far fewer people prefer Drug A, even though the results of using the drugs are identical.

Besides being sorted by foreign language participants were also randomly sorted by whether or not they got the gain or loss framing. Participants tested in their native language showed the predicted bias, but when tested in the foreign language, about an equal number of people preferred Drug A and Drug B.

An additional study found the same effect of foreign language on reasoning, but using a different bias. People tend to be loss averse, preferring to avoid a loss more than they prefer to gain an identical (or slightly better) amount. This means that people will often turn down an even bet which holds the possibility of gaining $12 and the possibility of losing $10, even though this bet has positive expected value. As with the other studies, Korean speakers proficient in English more often showed this tendency when reasoning in their native language than when reasoning in a foreign one, especially for larger bets.

There are a million reasons to learn a foreign language, but it’d be a very costly way to improve rationality. With that said, for anyone willing to invest the time and effort, better thinking could be the outcome. But even if you don’t go to the trouble, simply trying to communicate with people who don’t speak the same language as you will teach you a lot about how cognition and communication work.

3) The Zen of the Unfamiliar

Living in another culture can make you aware of so many things that you previously failed to notice at all. I remember not long after I got to Korea, I was in my kitchen and noticed that my sink was different from any of the ones I’d seen back in the States. It was a single open pit sunk into the counter, with a strange spinning mechanism where the drain usually is. After investigating for a while, I realized two things: one, the spinning mechanism was actually a multi-part contraption meant to catch food before it went down the drain (no idea why it could spin) and two, I’d just spend 100 times longer thinking about sinks than I had in the rest of my life combined.

To successfully live in a foreign country you’ll have to master the art of noticing things fairly quickly. You’ll start to watch how people dress, how they talk, how close they stand to each other, the relative frequency of eye contact, how they chew their food, what order people get served drinks. You’ll learn to read the environment to learn where to stand in line, where to catch the bus, where and how to buy things, which door is the exit and which one the entrance, whether or not certain places are likely to be safe, etc.

You’ll accomplish most of this by gathering evidence, forming hypotheses, using induction and deduction, and updating on new evidence. The things you’ve been reading about on Less Wrong will be put to use in finding food and shelter, the tools of rationality will be your compass in a world where you can’t read what’s written on signs or buildings and most people can’t understand your questions. So there’s a box on your wall with three buttons, two dials, a bunch of lights, and you’re pretty sure it can make hot water come out of the shower? Not a word of English anywhere on it, you say? Well then you’ll have to change one variable at a time and take note of the results, like any good scientist would.

Being immersed in a set of shared cultural and linguistic norms that you don’t understand makes almost every aspect of your life an experiment. It’s exhausting, and one of the most informative experiences I’ve ever had. On an emotional level, it will teach you to be more at ease with partial understanding, frustration, and confusion. With your comfort zone an ocean away, you’ll either persevere and think on your feet, or you’ll end up sleeping in the rain.


Like with learning a foreign language, there are many reasons to travel abroad and experience another culture. And of course, a plane ticket alone is not enough to make you a better thinker. But if you know what to look for and are actively seeking to grow from the experience, I can attest that being foreign for a little while is one way to become a bit more sane.

Sam Harris on Death, I.

(Rough) Outline

The reality of death and what it means (00:00 – 20:00)

What is now? (21:30 – 25:00)

Shifting perception and a small experiment (27:30 – 37:00)

Consciousness and experience (37:30 – 40:00)

Words of advice (40:15 – 45:00)


At the 2012 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne Australia, Sam Harris delivered a talk entitled “Death and the Present Moment“.  It was a departure from what I’ve come to expect from him, not because he was saying radically different things but because he went further than I’ve seen in elaborating his views of spirituality, consciousness, and philosophy.  There were hints of this in the closing chapters of the End of Faith, in his debate alongside Michael Shermer with Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston,  and in his essays.  I hope that this is a taste of what we can expect in his forthcoming book.

I can only speculate, but it seems that Sam departs most noticeably from his fellow horseman in these matters.  Though I find much worth pondering in what the major atheist thinkers agree on, I’m at least as interested in what they disagree on, because there lies fertile ground for planting the seeds of a discourse on the future of non-belief.  This post is just a summary of the video; I will probably write a follow up post in the future with my opinion of his message.

The talk was long, but its basic points were these: we are terrified of death, and many people seek solace in religion.  At root, the battles fought over things like creationism and evolution reduce, on some level, to a fear of death.  Because people’s religious worldview often comes as a package, telling them that their belief in creationism is foolish is interpreted as telling them that their deceased daughter isn’t in heaven basking in the glow of Jesus.  If it’s true that believers see the advancement of science as an effort to pry consolation from their fingers in the wake of a tragedy, perhaps we can understand the tenacity with which they cling to their beliefs.

To make matters worse, atheism as a rejection of God has little to offer that compares with the solace provided by religion.  Whatever liabilities they may present, religious beliefs do the job of comforting the bereaved and suffering remarkably well.

The first step in navigating a path between the twin rocks of nihilism and absurdity is to remember that it’s always now.  This may sound obvious, but Sam asserts that there are ways of finding happiness and experiencing our lives as sacred now.  Our minds, and more specifically our conscious experience, are all we have and all we are and all we can offer.  Its true that the brain does much beneath the level of awareness to create our experience of the present, and the idea of “now” is problematic from the viewpoint of physics.  But the fact remains.  If there is an antidote to the terror inspired by the yawning abyss of death, it does not consist in learning new things; if there is a meaning of life, it is not to be found in endlessly checking things off our To-Do lists.  Too many of us, in a tragic inversion of the ancient proverb, live no day as if it were our last.  When the bad news comes that the end is upon us, we look back on our uses of time and attention and discover that the latest ipad didn’t hold the key to our fulfillment.

This does not mean our aspirations are unimportant, but does suggest that we need to learn to reorient towards life, to more fully experience the present moment.  This could involve either reframing how we interact with our own experience, or doing away with such frames altogether.

Surprisingly for an atheist, Sam claims that discursive thought is both extraordinarily useful and a primary source of suffering.  There is a ceaseless conversation going on inside our heads, giving birth to all manner of worry, anxiety, and fear, and our inability to disentangle ourselves from it and just be is problematic if we value sanity and happiness.  Techniques like meditation are one way of not drowning in the stream of consciousness.

A new conversation about death and the meaning of life needs to be had, and it is up to us to make the world a better place, starting from the piece of it between our own ears.

What Tricky Things Are Words

On the excellent rationality blog Less Wrong, there is a post today discussing the worst argument in the world.

Yvain’s essay is characteristic of what I like about Less Wrong.  Everybody knows, and is willing to point out, that words are difficult to use and frequently misused.  I’ve personally been in hour long debates that could’ve been resolved in ten minutes if we’d gotten our terms straight in advance.  And once or twice I’ve been guilty of exploiting ambiguous language to save face when I new I was losing an argument.

But not very many people dig into the whys and hows of word misuse, or think seriously about possible solutions.  At Less Wrong, there is an entire sequence of essays devoted to that topic.

This paragraph jumped out at me:

And what’s going on should be no mystery to anyone who has read through the excellent Less Wrong Sequence On Words. Words are hidden inferences, which form a leaky generalization over a set of cases that cluster along certain dimensions but may vary widely in their other characteristics. Because people feel like words are a single monolithic whole, arguments about the world tend to devolve into arguments about definitions of words (like “murder”), as if those definitions determined reality. To escape such arguments, the participants need to taboo that particular word and replace the symbol with the substance, which often means dissolving a term into its component inferences and reasoning about each one individually.

It’s well-hyperlinked to a number of other relevant essays.

Rationality is a big interest of mine, and one to which I’ll return again.  I like what Luke Muehlhauser did at Common Sense atheism, blogging his way through everything Eleizer Yudkowky had written.  Such a project is one I’m considering taking up myself.