An Invitation to Measure Meditation

by justinpombrio 2 min read30th Sep 201833 comments


Update: Thank you all for the suggestions, and all of the links to resources!

Here is my plan, which I hope will balance measuring useful things with being easy enough that I'll actually stick with it:

  • Every Monday, I will complete a meditation test on Quantified Mind. On alternating Mondays, I will alternate whether I do the test immediately after meditating or not. These don't look like a gold standard for attention tests, but they're better than what I would code by hand and they're more of a standard.
  • Every Monday, I will play a game(s?) of Dual 2-back and record my score. (I'll switch to a higher N if 2-back ever gets easy.)
  • I will use TagTime to randomly ping me for an experience sample as a set of free-form tags, about twice per day, every day.

I'll report back in a couple months with some plots and commentary.

When I wrote this post, my mindset was embarrassingly close to "I'm a Bayesian scientist meditating! It's going to be like Harry and Hermione in HPMOR!". Except of course, if there really were magic, a ton of people would already have been studying it, and the best way to start would be by asking about it. Thanks for all the advice.

An Invitation to Measure Meditation

I've begun to meditate regularly, so it seems like a good opportunity to experiment and search for measurable effects of meditation. This is an open invitation to propose easy measurements for me to intermittently perform. I don't have any brilliant ideas for what to measure (beyond looking at Wikipedia's list of research on meditation), but it seems silly to waste the opportunity.

How am I meditating?

For the past ~20 days, I've been meditating while walking for an hour or two, though I intend to switch to primarily breath-following meditation. At least five days a week, one hour a day. I expect to keep this up for a couple months, but it's a big commitment so no promises.

I am following a ~500 page textbook on meditation called The Mind
, by John Yates (a.k.a., Culadasa) and others. It is, to quote the cover, "A complete meditation guide", which "integrat[es] Buddhist wisdom and brain science for greater mindfulness". Most of it is organized into instructions and techniques for how to meditate in 10 stages (corresponding roughly to the 9 stages described by Asanga, which I can't find a reference for), but there are also five "interludes" that describe five increasingly complete models of the mind.

The book is full of gears. If they're accurate, this is fantastic, but if they're not I'm likely to find out the hard way. Fortunately, there are some good signs: it has already given me a couple pieces of useful advice, and its models seem to be consistent with Bernard Barrs' global workspace theory, the leading scientific theory of consciousness. Though take that with a grain of salt, as it's a pretty new field. (While I haven't done a detailed comparison, I have read Bernard Baars' book In the Theater of Consciousness, and the models at least generally agree.)

What will I Measure?

Anyways, to quote the book, the two main objectives of this kind of meditation are:

  • Developing stable attention.
  • Cultivating powerful mindfulness that optimizes the interaction between attention and awareness.

For context, "attention" is when you focus on one thing in particular. It tends to isolate that thing, be analytical, and be more “self” centered. On the other hand, "peripheral awareness", or "awareness" for short, tends to take in a whole sensory field at once (e.g. everything you’re seeing), is more contextual and involves less analysis, and is less personal and more objective.

So I would like to find tasks that will plausibly measure something related to attention or awareness. I am willing to spend up to one hour each week doing these tasks. Some possible tasks are:

You'll notice that there's no control, so how can the results be interpreted? Well, if I improve a lot on some task, then hopefully that will interest someone else to be a control by doing the task over the same time-frame without meditating.

Questions for You:

  • Is this worthwhile, or am I unlikely to find anything significant with a sample size of 1?
  • If it is worthwhile, what should I measure?
  • How interested would people be to see a post on the mind model given in The Mind Illuminated, and compared/contrasted with global workspace theory?