Extending Mindfulness into the Cognitive Realm


At first glance, mindfulness and meditation may appear to have little in common with critical thinking and problem-solving. The former requires a more detached perspective, while the latter requires an active and inherently busy mindset.

However, when digging deeper into the underpinnings, there are various ways these practices can upgrade your critical thinking and overall problem-solving abilities.

Before delving into specifics, it's important to understand the key features of mindfulness/meditation and critical thinking. While mindfulness and meditation take numerous forms, they always require cultivating awareness of the present moment and a nonjudgmental or non-reactive attitude. The goal of meditation is never to "stop thinking," but rather to examine one's ideas without identifying with them.

Beyond thinking, this non-reactive attitude can also be applied to arising feelings, emotions, and sensations. Basically, being mindful is being totally present and acutely aware of your surroundings.

🤔 Critical Thinking 🤔

It is important to define critical thinking. While it can be challenging to define precisely, there is a general consensus.

"To think critically is to analyze and evaluate information, reasoning and situations according to appropriate standards for the purpose of constructing sound and insightful new knowledge, understandings, hypotheses, and beliefs." (Heard, et al., 2020).

One can see that analysis and evaluation are not only used to answer questions but also to improve the quality of thinking.

Another critical thinking principle is the ability to analyze and evaluate evidence and arguments without bias based on prior experience or knowledge. It requires a high level of cognitive flexibility as well as many essential executive functions (higher-order functions performed by the brain), such as inhibition, self-regulation, and updating.

🧘🏼‍♀️ Mindfulness 🧘🏼‍♂️

So how does becoming more mindful improve critical thinking exactly? 

One of the most significant impacts is the improvement of your executive functions. Specifics include:

  • Inhibition - the ability to inhibit automatic responses
  • Updating - the ability to update information and decisions based on that new information
  • Shifting - the ability to change between different tasks and/or rules efficiently

Research has shown that all of these major aspects of executive function are improved by mindfulness interventions, especially inhibition.

A meta-anlaysis on meditation concludes that meditation enhances the alerting and executive control networks within attentional processes and enhances inhibition and updating, particularly as they relate to attention. Meditation training is also associated with greater accuracy in problem-solving tasks, according to the findings.

Overall, this is fantastic news because executive functions are directly related to critical thinking skills. Indeed, behavioral and neural research shows that updating and inhibition can predict critical thinking abilities even when intelligence and thinking habits are taken into account.

As a result, it is easy to see how executive function enhancements serve as a link between mindfulness and critical thinking. Meditation enhances alerting and executive control networks in attentional processes, as well as inhibition and updating, particularly when it comes to attention.

Cognitive Flexibility

Improvements in executive functions and higher-order cognitive processes also suggest increased cognitive flexibility and the ability to adapt one's thinking and behavior to a changing environment. Examples include:

  • Switching between different problems.
  • Thinking about different concepts at the same time
  • Adapting to new problem-solving rules.

Meditation essentially creates the conditions for more flexible mental programs in cognitive tasks and leads to better cognitive processing and monitoring.

This concept's premise is based on Global Workspace Theory. According to it, access to conscious information is limited and depends on what is going on in the environment and where one's attention is at any given time.

In other words, by "freeing up space" in the brain through meditation, the brain is more likely to allocate neurons to a wide range of cognitive tasks, allowing one to focus cognitive resources on what is important and relevant at the time.

In terms of critical thinking, this means that you will be more capable of focusing on the problem at hand and allocating all of your cognitive resources to solving it.

⚖️ Emotional Regulation ⚖️

Another benefit of becoming more mindful via meditation is increased emotional regulation and decreased emotional reactivity, especially for someone trying to filter out distractions while engaging in critical thinking. It's also a great way to identify biases or judgments when trying to solve a problem—another critical tenet of critical thinking.

Mindfulness, in essence, creates space for the brain to focus its attention on the most important task at hand. As a result, you not only gain a better understanding of the problem, but you also become more open to novel approaches to problem solving, more sensitive to changes in context and the overall environment, and more aware of multiple perspectives, all of which lead to improved critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

This is supported by research indicating that many of the same brain regions affected by mindfulness and meditation also play a key role in executive function and the salience network, both of which play a role in a variety of cognitive functions and tasks.

As a result of these interventions, structural and functional neuroplasticity improves, as does cognitive function. This is due to the fact that these brain areas are extremely sensitive to mindfulness training.

Live the actual moment. Only this actual moment is life.

Thích Nhất Hạnh

Thinking About Thinking

It's important to understand that meditation not only helps you solve problems at a higher level, but it also helps you become more aware of what skills are required for a specific task, whether those skills are adequate to solve the problem, and how you can control your thinking while performing the task.

This higher-level thinking, or "cognition about one's own cognition," is referred to as "metacognition." Mindfulness is closely related to metacognition because both processes necessitate that the individual monitor and control aspects of their ongoing cognitive activity.

Furthermore, increasing metacognition through mindfulness can lead to greater self-awareness of problem-solving skills and thus greater ease in controlling, modifying, and adapting critical thinking and other cognitive skills to solve problems more effectively.

Limitations

You've seen how mindfulness and meditation improve cognitive function and critical thinking. However, it is important to note some limitations as well as other areas where they are ineffective.

Despite the positive effects on attention, research indicates that mindfulness does not improve all aspects of attention. Another potential limitation is that meditation does not appear to have many memory benefits, either for working memory or long-term memory. (However, research indicates that there are still some benefits in those areas.)

Your thinking disposition?

One thing to keep in mind is that the benefits of mindfulness on critical thinking are dependent on one's thinking dispositions, such as the need for cognition, open-mindedness, and non-reactivity.

Surprisingly, those with a lower need for cognition and open-mindedness benefit more from mindfulness for critical thinking. Perhaps this is because mindfulness improves the very things that those people are lacking in, leading to improvements in critical thinking, but this cannot be stated definitively at this time.

Individuals with lower non-reactivity (i.e., those who are more emotionally reactive) have lower critical thinking performance after practicing mindfulness. Perhaps this means that non-reactivity isn't always beneficial to critical thinking performance, but there's no way to know for sure.

The act of meditation is being spacious.

Sogyal Rinpoche

Where Does This Lead Us?

What we do know is that mindfulness improves executive function, attention, and other higher-order processes, such as metacognition, which benefits critical thinking and overall cognition. However, there are always limitations, as there are with many things.

Overall, the benefits of mindfulness and meditation for critical thinking and problem solving outweigh the drawbacks, making it an excellent choice. The question then becomes, how should it be put into action?

In reality, there isn't a single answer to this question because there are so many different types of meditation. It all depends on your preferences, goals, and, possibly, cultural background, among other factors.

Different Practices

It is beneficial to investigate various types of meditation and how they can best serve you once implemented. The following is a list of some popular forms to research and investigate.

1. Buddhist Meditation

Buddhist meditation

Buddhism is associated with one of the most well-known forms of meditation. Many people associate the word "meditation" with a picture of a monk in an orange robe sitting quietly in the lotus position.

In Buddhism, one of the main goals is to end suffering. Meditation is intended to act as an antidote to the causes of suffering, which are usually ignorance, delusions, or affliction. Meditation in Buddhism accomplishes this by quieting the mind and allowing oneself to experience pure, undistorted perceptions of reality.

Another central concept in Buddhism, at least in most traditions, is that everyone possesses Buddha-like qualities and is inherently good. The primary goal is to achieve enlightenment, which is always found internally, never externally, with meditation used as a tool to achieve this enlightened state.

In theory, practicing Buddhist meditation is quite simple; however, simple does not always imply easy. To do this, sit in a quiet place where you will not be interrupted, and then choose something to focus on (most often the rise and fall of your breath). The goal is to be aware of the breath as well as any other sensations that may arise. When thoughts arise, simply allow them to pass through; if you find yourself thinking a lot, try not to react and return to focusing on your breath.

You can expect a quieter and calmer mind, increased awareness and realizations, and the cultivation of enhanced positive traits with this simple practice. It really depends on your intentions going into the session, as well as what happens during the meditation itself.

2. Transendental Meditation

Transcendental Meditation Group

Transcendental meditation, founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, is another popular type of meditation. He introduced the practice to India, but it has since spread throughout the world. Transcendental meditation has Hindu roots and is frequently used as a religious practice, such as in ritualistic ceremonies. Regardless of religious affiliation, it can be applied to daily life with great success.

It is a type of mantra meditation that uses a mantra-based focus to keep distracting thoughts at bay. (A mantra is simply a word or sound on which you concentrate.) The idea is that when distracting thoughts enter your mind, you simply return to the mantra and refocus on it.

Transcendental meditation aims to cultivate a calm, relaxed, yet sharp mind in this way. Many of the relaxation benefits appear to be caused by the repetition of the word or sound itself.

While it is true that practicing the mantra will help you relax more, the idea is that the word will do it on its own. Transcendental meditation has numerous benefits, and it is one of the most well-studied types of meditation, particularly for stress reduction.

3. Dynamic Meditation

Osho Dynamic Meditation

Dynamic meditation is a type of meditation that is very different from the first two forms mentioned. It entails physical movement and activity and is usually performed in a group setting.

Osho Rajneesh's Dynamic Meditation, which he founded, is the most widely practiced form of dynamic meditation.

The primary goal of dynamic meditation is to rid the body of ingrained negative patterns and habits in both the body and the mind in order to achieve greater freedom and inner peace.

Osho dynamic meditation consists of five steps: rapid, chaotic breathing; "explosion" of body movements, yells, screams, and so on; raising arms above the head and shouting "hoo, hoo, hoo!" as deeply as possible; "freezing"/being a witness to the present; and celebrating with others when it is finished.

This type of meditation is intense and highly energetic, as you can probably tell from the brief description.

Osho himself stated that it may take up to a month or more to reap the full benefits, but the more intense and focused you are, the greater the results (and the faster they will come

4. Tai Chi

Tai Qi Group

Tai chi is another type of meditation that involves physical movement. However, physical movement is probably the only thing that Tai Chi has in common with Osho meditation, as the latter is said to be much more calming and relaxing.

Tai Chi, as you may be aware, originated in China as a martial art but is now recognized as a form of meditation. It is also known as "meditation in motion" because it entails a variety of movements that you perform while attempting to remain present.

The goal is to concentrate on all of the subtleties of the body, noting any feelings, sensations, or other physical aspects as well as flowing smoothly from one movement to the next while fully engaging with each. In this way, tai chi aids in the relaxation of both the body and the mind.

5. Trance Dance

Bushmen Trance Dance

Meditation is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Africa, but make no mistake: it is an important part of many cultures and traditions. The practice of the San people of Botswana and Namibia, also known as the African Bushmen, is one of them. Every day, they meditate.

These individuals engage in what is known as a "trance dance." This dance is an indigenous ritual and one of their most important religious practices because it provides a way to heal those who are in any way suffering. It usually entails singing and dancing all night around a fire.

It is a sensational, highly energetic, emotional, and passionate ritual in which the dancers expend all of their energy in order to achieve an altered state of consciousness. They are supposed to feel the healing power within them at this point and then use it to heal others who are in need.

These people gather all of their positive and healing energy and feel its vibration before passing it on to others in a community-wide healing ceremony. They can usually achieve a trance-like or hypnotic state, which aids in the healing process by allowing them to be fully present in the moment and at one with everything and everyone around them.

So, unlike most people who meditate, they don't have a specific goal of staying in the present moment, but their fantastic ritual, by definition, takes them completely into the present moment. When they are exhausted, they frequently collapse and enter a state of meditation.

6. Mindfulness (Western)

Woman meditating with app

As with Buddhist meditation, the West attempted to apply many of the mindfulness aspects of that meditation to daily life.

Initially, mindfulness encountered some challenges because many people believed it was solely associated with religious beliefs and was only practiced by a select few. However, research findings and discoveries based on scientific methods demonstrated that mindfulness is a very simple capacity that is inherent in all humans, leading to greater implementation in the West.

Many people nowadays In the Western world, mindfulness is a rapidly growing health trend. It is defined as paying complete attention to the present moment and being aware of everything that is going on around us. It is applicable in everyday situations such as folding laundry, eating lunch, or going for a walk. All it takes is a conscious effort to concentrate on the present moment. What do you see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and so on?

Mindlessness, on the other hand, involves a distracted mind, usually from replaying past memories or worrying about the future. As awareness and training improve, more people are likely to adopt a mindful lifestyle and reap the health benefits, such as reduced anxiety and improved overall quality of life.

As with any form of meditation, the goal is never to achieve an empty mind, but rather to observe thoughts and feelings as they arise in a nonjudgmental manner and then let them pass as they may.

Finally, this produces a highly grounded state that allows one to more easily manage cognitive, emotional, and overall mental states.

So what's the best?

With a better understanding of these various forms, the question becomes, which one is best for improving critical thinking and problem-solving abilities?

In reality, there is no such thing as a best practice. In the end, it comes down to what works best for you. It is determined by your specific situation, personality, and characteristics, among other factors. What is most practical is always the best option. If all paths lead to the same result, try something new and see what happens. 

Being more aware of your breath is a great place to start.

The main point is that all of these practices are excellent ways to improve mental clarity, grounding in the present, and heightened awareness, all of which improve critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. Using an app is a simple way to get started and jumpstart the engines, especially for those with little to no experience with this practice.

Top-Rated Apps

Headspace

Headspace App

With over 70 million downloads, Headspace is easily one of the most popular mindfulness apps. It has a 4.9 rating as well. There are over 500 different meditations in various categories to help you learn more about mindfulness and meditation, including guided meditations, mini-meditations (short on time? ), articles, videos, and much more.

Calm

Calm App

Calm is another popular mindfulness app that has over 100 million downloads. According to the most recent ratings, it has a 4.8 out of 5. It has its own set of tools, such as guided meditations, mindfulness programs, breathing exercises, sleep stories, music and natural sounds, calming mind-body practices, and even a section for "calm kids." A masterclass explicitly focused on creativity, peak performance, and mental training is another excellent addition.

Insight

Insight

Insight Training is a free app that contains thousands of free meditations on a variety of topics including sleep, calm, stress, morning rituals, and deep healing. It, like the other apps, includes articles, videos, and other informational pieces, many of which are written by mindfulness and meditation experts.

Ten Percent Happier

Ten Percent Happier App

Ten Percent Happier provides a variety of guided meditations and practical teachings that you can use whenever and wherever you want. The app employs some of the world's top meditation experts and teachers, so you can be confident that you are being guided by the right people.

mylife

MyLife is unique in that it suggests activities based on the current emotions you check off when you sign in. When you use it, it provides meditation, yoga, guided breathing, journaling, and other activities geared toward your emotional state.

💫 Conclusion 💫

Overall, studies show that incorporating a mindfulness practice is extremely beneficial when done on a regular basis. The advantages will be felt in every aspect of your life, with improved executive functioning, increased cognitive flexibility, and increased self-awareness, all of which will improve your problem-solving and critical thinking abilities.

Being more mindful has enormous mental and physical health benefits. As you can see from this article, there are numerous ways to improve critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Given that there are numerous ways to get started, all of which are based on your personal preferences, needs, characteristics, goals, and so on, getting started should be relatively simple. However, simple does not imply easy!

If you decide to incorporate mindfulness into your daily routine, keep in mind that it will take time to develop. Allow the practice to unfold naturally, and it will improve over time. You don't have to "try" to meditate; you just have to "be." Again, apps are fantastic for giving you an extra boost at the start.

References

Cásedas, L., Pirruccio, V., Vadillo, M.A. et al. . (2020). Does Mindfulness Meditation Training Enhance Executive Control? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials in Adults . Mindfulness 11, 411–424. .
Farrar, S.T., Yarrow, K. & Tapper, K. . (2020). The Effect of Mindfulness on Cognitive Reflection and Reasoning. Mindfulness 11, 2150–2160.
Gill, L. N., Renault, R., Campbell, E., Rainville, P., & Khoury, B. . (2020). Mindfulness induction and cognition: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Consciousness and cognition, 84, 102991. .
Heard J., Scoular, C., Duckworth, D., Ramalingam, D., & Teo, I. . (2020). Critical thinking: Definition and structure. Australian Council for Educational Research.. Australian Council for Educational Research.
Im, S., Stavas, J., Lee, J., Mir, Z., Hazlett-Stevens, H., & Caplovitz, G. . (2021). Does mindfulness-based intervention improve cognitive function?: A meta-analysis of controlled studies. . Clinical Psychology Review, 101972.
Keeney, H., Keeney, B., & Boo, K. . (2016). The “trance dance” of the Ju/’hoan Bushmen (San) of Southern Africa: implications for hypnotic means of healing. International Journal of Health Promotion and Education, 54(3), 137-144. .
Li, S., Ren, X., Schweizer, K., Brinthaupt, T. M., & Wang, T. . (2021). Executive functions as predictors of critical thinking: Behavioral and neural evidence. Learning and Instruction, 71, 101376. .
Noone, C., Bunting, B., & Hogan, M. J. . (2016). Does mindfulness enhance critical thinking? Evidence for the mediating effects of executive functioning in the relationship between mindfulness and critical thinking. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 2043. .
Noone, C., Hogan, M.J. . (2018). Improvements in Critical Thinking Performance Following Mindfulness Meditation Depend on Thinking Dispositions. Mindfulness 9, 461–473.
Raffone, A., Srinivasan, N. . (2017). Mindfulness and Cognitive Functions: Toward a Unifying Neurocognitive Framework. . Mindfulness 8, 1–9..
Samsonovich, A. V., Kitsantas, A., Dabbagh, N., & De Jong, K. A. . (2008). Self-awareness as metacognition about own self concept.. AAAI technical report (Vol. 8, p. 07)..
Saunders, D. . (2016). An Introduction to the Buddhist Underpinnings of Mindfulness-Based Interventions: Buddha-Nature and Intrinsic Goodness. American Journal of Psychiatry Residents' Journal, 11(03), 7-9. .
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nice

Meditation offers a ton of benefits, from stress relief to better sleep. But if you're not in the habit of doing it, setting up a daily routine and sticking with it can be really hard—especially when there are so many other things vying for your attention. Extending mindfulness into your life can sometimes seem overwhelming—until you realize that there are small, simple steps you can take to get started and build on your practice.

Taking your words to heart as I am striving to be more mindful

It’s so interesting that I stumbled upon this article because this is a topic that I was just discussing with my brother-in-law. He told me that he likes to wake up early before anybody else in the house is awake and just take about 20 to 30 minutes and just sit on the couch and have some quiet time to reflect on his past day and what he would like to see accomplished for that day. I definitely would like to take some time in my day to not so much meditate but maybe have some focused thoughts and be more mindful of what I want to accomplish. I notice that I often think about too many things at once and then it’s overwhelming and I really don’t get that many projects done. I think I need to just sit down and have some focused thoughts and work on one or two projects a day and complete those before I start something else. Maybe getting a journal would be helpful as well so that way I can start writing down my thoughts and make a list of things and goals that I would like to see accomplished. The list of apps was also very helpful and I’m definitely going to share this article with my brother-in-law since he talks about the meditation and being more mindful and different things that would be interesting to him as well. Thank you.

Mental and physical health has been at the forefront of news and health care lately. This is not only due to the mental and physical stress caused by the pandemic but also by the economic situation, rise in hate, political strife and weather disasters. As mentioned before in this article, mental health really became front and center with popular sports figures such as Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles withdrawing from high-profile sports competitions citing mental health.

This article gives good and well-researched information about the power of the mind and achieving mental and physical balance. If we don't take care of our minds, everything falls apart. Meditation may be one of the keys to that care.

We have to take care of ourselves...mind, body and soul.

I appreciate that the article ties in meditation with better thinking and processing. You often hear of its benefits for anxiety and relaxation, but rarely do you hear of its benefit on problem-solving. 🤔

More and more people are beginning to speak about mental health which is amazing. Personally, meditating in the ice tub or sauna has been very helpful.

I also think that equestrian therapy is extremely undervalued because you have to be mindful for the horse to trust you and take direction.

think we all need to basically free up space through meditation. 

I had the hardest time just being able to relax, especially living in Los Angeles. I always had the fear of missing out on something exciting. I was always on the GO! A friend of mine told me once, as the old saying goes "Don't just sit there, do something" He would always tell me David, don't just do something, sit there. I literally had the hardest time sitting still and of course meditating was totally our of the question until lately. 

 It truly does lead to better cognitive processing. 

I am all about a calm, relaxed and sharp mind. Especially at my age

PS Many thanks for sharing the apps as well

I do like to take time for myself before everyone is awake and practice mindfulness/meditation, and also positive affirmations. It clears the mind, and starts the day on a positive note.  However, during the day distractions can arise, and Transcendental meditation (Just learned this from the article) can be very helpful if you start to go off track from daily goals, or negative thoughts enter your mind. A mantra or word can bring you back into focus.

"It is important to know that meditation not only allows you to solve problems at a higher level; it also leads to increased self-awareness of what skills are required for a specific task, whether or not those skills are adequate for solving the problem, and an overall ability to monitor and control thinking processes throughout the task..." this sums up so much!

Mindfulness and meditation truly can improve our cognitive thinking skills and problem-solving abilities!!

This was a great piece on health, which is very important and I will be sure to share and implement this information in my life. I loved the Inhibition, updating, and shifting concepts, these were something new I learned.