A few months ago, I decided to start meditating regularly, around an hour a day. It seemed like a good opportunity to measure possible effects, so I asked for advice on what to measure. This post summarizes the results. In short, while the subjective effects of meditation were strong, the measurements didn't show anything. This is a fine place to stop reading; I'm mostly posting this because I promised to.

I did mindfulness meditation, as guided by The Mind Illuminated. My object of focus was typically my breath (while sitting), or my steps (as hiking).

What I Measured

What I Measured

  • My performance on the tasks looked entirely random. It wasn't better or worse after meditating, and it didn't get better or worse over time.
  • I have no idea how to do experience sampling. I understand that some people have moods. I'm almost always in a neutral mood, and so wasn't sure what to put most of the time. Also, I'm apparently often away from my phone, and missed many (most?) pings.

What I Learned

  • The Mind Illuminated is as good of a guide as I hoped it would be.
  • A few measly months of meditation isn't going to change anything like your performance on reaction-time-like tasks.
  • A few measly months of meditation will give you a fascinating look into your own mind. It's not what you think. I'd say more, but I'm deeply confused and don't have a good model.
  • Meditation retreats are great. I went on a two-day one, whose format wasn't particularly well-suited for me, and even this had a large effect on my practice.
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I feel frustration when people don't measure the two things that have shown the largest effect in studies to date: working memory and neuroticism.

Ah, this was exactly the sort of thing I was hoping to learn from the "Invitation to Measure Meditation" post. How do you know this---did you need to read a lot of papers, or is there a good survey paper that you could point to?

And do you have a recommendation for how to measure working memory or neuroticism? (It's fine if you don't.)

In the previous post, you suggested taking a Big-5 personality test. I'm allergic to those things, though. They're so vague I don't know what to do: should I answer how I believe I would behave right now, or how I want to behave right now, or how I think I've behaved in the past, or how I want to think of myself behaving, or how I want others to think of me behaving? If the answer is "sometimes very strongly yes, and sometimes very strongly no", is that higher or lower then "always middling"? And I don't think I could keep my beliefs of how meditation would effect my answers from effecting my answers. In short, I can't imagine learning anything useful from a Big-5 personality test.

Working memory, however, sounds much easier to test.

neuroticism is from the big 5. Shrug. Working memory tests are available online in a variety of formats. I'd probably just pick the 2-3 that seemed good then retake them later. I did Ravens and the one with number of boxes. Showed slight improvement 6 months apart, within test retest variation though. To date there have been a couple studies that showed implausibly large effect size on working memory. Someone should really follow up on them with more funding.

I don't know of a good survey paper.

Meditation increases working memory? Do you have a reference on that?

A better methodological study was done, which I hadn't seen before, contra the two mentioned:


My guess would be the earlier studies ignored test familiarity effect, which affects some types of working memory tests.

Strong upvote for reporting on measured self-experimentation.

It doesn't speak directly to your results, but: I was reading a comment elsewhere about the phenomenon of people having a meditative experience (like kensho), feeling very different subjectively, but then when they describe it to their friends/families/colleagues those people don't notice anything different.

I noticed that I would shocked if a few months of doing something for an hour a day were to outweigh one or more decades of socialization, under the same stimuli as usual, enough that it would be casually obvious.

As a result, my estimation of how much meditation would be required to even make a good test got pushed much higher. Alternatively, and in my estimation more likely, casual observation is a very wrong thing to be looking at for evidence of the effectiveness of meditation.

Related, I suspect that other people are on average just really bad about picking up internal details about someone. For instance, it's common for people to have depression for years without their friends noticing; people might even be driven to the point of suicide without anyone else suspecting a thing before that.

I think that in general, any outside demeanor is compatible with a huge range of different subjective experiences. Variations in the internal experience will only be noticed to the extent that it's reflected in some pretty narrow set of variables that we're picking up on.

I agree, but I suspect the causal relationship lines up the other way - we are very good at behaving a particular way in response to particular situations, regardless of our subjective experiences.

That's definitely true as well - a lot of the depressed people are putting up an act because that's what (they feel) is expected of them.

What is the way you were meditating? Relaxed or focused? Comfortable or cross legged? Focusing on a meaningless symbol, or letting your mind wander, or focusing on something meaningful?

I have found that I can produce a significant amount of emotion, of a chosen type, eg anxious, miserable, laughing, foucssedly happy, ect in seconds. I seem to do this just by focusing on the emotion with little conscious thinking of a concept that would cause the emotion. Is this meditation? (Introspection, highly unreliable)

Can you describe the meditation as attempting to modify your thought pattern in some way?

I'm going to partially answer your question. The full answer is that I followed the instructions of The Mind Illuminated, and that if you want to meditate regularly I suggest doing the same. And also find a teacher. I lack one and notice the lack; I'll be seeking one out when I move to Boston soon.

I did both sitting and walking meditation. While sitting, I would pay attention to the sensations of my breath, while also trying to be aware of everything else (sight if eyes open; sounds; itches; etc.). My mind would then wander. When I noticed it had wandered, I would return focus to my breath. This would happen over and over again, something like once a minute.

I wouldn't describe meditation as modifying my thought patterns, because the (e.g. breath) sensations I put my attention on are not thoughts. My thoughts take me away from them.

I'd usually sit cross-legged, but when that got uncomfortable I would just sit upright in a chair. You should sit in a comfortable but alert position. (Sit upright! Don't slouch. It seems to me to have a surprising detrimental effect on focus.)

I haven't tried amplifying emotions. I don't know of any style of meditation that centers around that, but I hear there's a wide variety, most of which I know nothing about. I just tried, and wasn't able to immediately produce a strong emotion in myself (just middling ones).

The subjective effect I experience from meditation usually happens after the fact. (Or appears to; it might just be harder to notice when you're repeatedly returning to your breath.) It's a phase transition in my mind. Like I said, I'm rather confused about what's going on, but I can tell you how it feels. It feels (repeatedly) like I have just woken from a dream; my inner monologue grows quieter; it no longer feels appropriate to say that "I am experiencing this", rather there are only sensations; the present feels isolated from the past, even seconds ago; objects in sight feel more real than those not in sight. It sounds (and feels) strange, but A++ would experience again.

There has been (some) research on the hoped-for effects of meditation. http://nonsymbolic.org/publications

"waking up from a dream" is a relatively common description as are the other things you describe. As your "mindfulness" improves you will more or less permanently shift into "awake". With practice the experience transitions from a "psychological" state to a "psychological" trait. Using Kahnemans terminology this transition can crudely be thought of as the balance of power shifting from the "remembering self" to the "experiencing self"


There's nothing inherently uncomfortable about sitting cross legged. It's just a matter of adapting yourself to the position.

Are you able to sit cross-legged for more than 30 minutes, without moving your legs, without pain? Is there a trick to doing so that isn't "sit cross-legged an hour every day for a year; by then the pain will stop"?

Personally, my leg goes to sleep and starts throbbing, and I hear this is pretty common.

It's been a while since I regularly sat in cross-legged as I'm in a meditation tradition where we don't meditate cross-legged. It's comfortable enough to sit cross-legged that I sometimes do it without meditating.

I'm just writing from personal experience but my current hypothesis is that at the beginning having something on which you can lean your back is central.

I acquired the ability to sit how I sit from doing an Aikido breathing meditation I took out of a book that includes some movement and I did it back then with my back resting against a wall. In the meditation there was the goal to inhale really long and then exhale really long and move a bit forward and contract with the whole body and then give the lungs as much space as possible during the inhale.

The wall helps the body to organize in that position and then after having learned how to sit that way it isn't needed anymore.

One thing I did back then was to have my feet directly in front of me with the wall in my back and push down the legs on both side during the exhale so that the knees go down and take the up during the inhale.

That's what I did back then when I didn't know much and just had book to guide me.

I still think that the basic principle of allowing your body to sync with a rhythm will having as much support as you need to sit comfortably in a cross-legged position is a good way to learn to sit.

There's a oscillating rhythm that's faster then the breathing rhythm that works to stabilize the body position but there seems to be little research for it and the people who taught me about it couldn't give me any names. In it you basically move the minimum that's possible to move forward and back in a really fast rhythm of maybe one second.

There's a state where that rhythm happens automatically and where you aren't moving back and forth through effort, the body gets upright and tensions relax.

I'm not sure whether my description is enough for you to work with that oscillating rhythm.

For me, being able to lean my back against something fixes the thing about legs going to sleep.

Should take about a week of stretching. Not a year of sitting.

Did you miss more pings before or after? (Or no affect?)

I tended to meditate either first thing in the morning (going on a hike), or late at night (sitting), and I don't have a record of when I did what. And the pings came randomly throughout the day. So I'm not sure there's much to say here. I'd typically miss pings because my phone was in a different room, or I was outside and didn't hear it. And I often forgot to turn on TagTime in the morning, or forgot to turn it off at night. All in all, it was pretty shoddy experience sampling.