Extending Mindfulness into the Cognitive Realm

How to Increase Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving Abilities

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

🧘🏼‍♀️ 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 (ability to update information and decisions based on that new information)
  • Shifting (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.

Meta-analytical evidence also shows that meditation enhances the alerting and executive control networks within attentional processes and enhances inhibition and updating, particularly as they relate to attention. Findings also show that meditation training is associated with greater accuracy in problem-solving tasks.

Overall, this is excellent news because executive functions are directly related to critical thinking abilities. In fact, current evidence from behavioral and neural research shows that updating and inhibition can predict critical thinking abilities even when accounting for intelligence level and thinking dispositions.

Thus, one can see how executive function improvements act as a bridge between mindfulness and critical thinking. Meditation also enhances the alerting and executive control networks within attentional processes and enhances inhibition and updating, particularly as they relate 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 premise of this concept originates in Global Workspace Theory. It states that access to conscious information is limited and depends on relevant stimuli in the environment and one's attentional focus at any given moment.

Thus, by "freeing up space" through meditation, the brain is more likely to allocate neurons to a wide range of cognitive tasks, which means that one can allocate cognitive resources to relevant and vital stimuli at a given time.

In the realm of critical thinking, this means that you will be more capable of focusing on the problem you are trying to solve and allocate all of your cognitive resources towards solving that problem.

⚖️ 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 an excellent way to identify biases or judgments when trying to find a solution to a problem - another important tenet of critical thinking.

In essence, mindfulness creates space for the brain to focus its attention on the most crucial task at hand. In turn, not only can you better understand what the problem is, but you also become more open to novel ways of solving problems, more sensitive to changes in context and the overall environment, and more aware of multiple perspectives, all of which leads to better critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

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

And given that these specific brain areas are highly sensitive to mindfulness training, these interventions lead to enhanced structural and functional neuroplasticity and overall increased cognitive function.

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

Thích Nhất Hạnh

Thinking About Thinking

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 higher-level thinking, or what some call “cognition about one’s own cognition”, is called metacognition. Mindfulness is highly relevant to metacognition because both of these processes require that the individual monitors and controls aspects of their ongoing cognitive activity.

And by increasing metacognition through mindfulness, one can expect 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 the many benefits of mindfulness and meditation on cognitive function and critical thinking. However, it's important to note some of its limitations and other areas where it is not beneficial. 

For example, despite the positive effects on attention, research shows that mindfulness does not improve all aspects of attention. Another possible limitation is that meditation does not appear to have many benefits for memory, either working memory or long-term memory. (Research shows there are still some benefits in those areas, though).

Your thinking disposition?

One thing to consider is that the benefits of mindfulness on critical thinking depend on one's thinking dispositions, such as the need for cognition, open-minded thinking, and non-reactivity. 

Interestingly, the benefits of mindfulness for critical thinking are greater in those with a lower need for cognition and open-mindedness. Perhaps this could be because mindfulness enhances the very things that those people are deficient in, leading to critical thinking improvements, but as of now, it can't be stated definitively.

Also, individuals who are lower in non-reactivity (i.e. more emotionally reactive) show decreased critical thinking performance following mindfulness. Perhaps this means that non-reactivity may not always be beneficial for critical thinking performance, but again, one can't say for sure either way.

The act of meditation is being spacious.

Sogyal Rinpoche

Where Does This Lead Us?

What we do know for sure is that mindfulness enhances many improvements in executive function, attention, and other higher-order processes, including metacognition, which in turn benefit critical thinking and overall cognition. Yet, as with many things, there are always limitations.

Overall, though, the pros of mindfulness and meditation on critical thinking and problem solving significantly outweigh the cons, so it is definitely good to implement. The question then becomes, how should it be implemented?

In truth, there really isn't a single answer to this question as there are many forms of meditation. It all depends on your preferences, goals, and perhaps cultural background, among other things.

Different Practices

It is helpful to explore different forms of meditation and how they can best serve you once implemented. Below are a list of some popular forms to research and explore. 

1. Buddhist Meditation
Buddhist Monk Meditation

One of the most well-known forms of meditation is associated with Buddhism. When people hear the word "meditation," often what comes to mind for many is 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 essentially supposed to act as an antidote to the causes of suffering, which in most cases are usually ignorance, delusions, or karmas. In Buddhism, meditation does this by quieting the mind and opening oneself up to pure, undistorted perceptions of reality.

Another central idea in Buddhism, at least for most traditions within it, is that everyone possesses Buddha-like qualities and all people are inherently good. The primary goal is to reach a state of enlightenment, and this state is always found internally, never externally utilizing meditation as a tool to achieve this enlightened state.

In theory, practicing Buddhist meditation is quite simple, though simple doesn't necessarily mean easy. To do this, sit in a quiet place where you will not be interrupted; then, choose to focus on something (most often the rise and fall of your breath). The goal is to notice the breath and any other sensations that may arise. When thoughts do come up, just let them pass through, and if you find yourself thinking a lot, try not to react and return to focusing on your breath.

With this simple practice, you can expect a quieter and calmer mind, greater awareness and realizations, and the cultivation of enhanced positive traits. It really depends on what your goals are going into the session, along with what happens during the meditation itself.

2. Transendental Meditation
Transcendental Meditation Group

Another prevalent form of meditation is transcendental meditation, founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He initially brought the practice to India, though it has spread all over the world. Transcendental meditation is rooted in Hinduism and is often used as a religious practice, such as ritualistic ceremonies. Yet, it can apply to daily life with great success regardless of religious affiliation.

It is a form of mantra meditation, utilizing a mantra-based focus to prevent distracting thoughts. (A mantra is simply a word or sound that you focus on). The premise is that when distracting thoughts enter your awareness, you simply return to the mantra and focus on it once again. 

In this manner, transcendental meditation aims to cultivate a calm, relaxed, yet sharp mind. It also appears that the repetition of the word or sound itself leads to many of the relaxation benefits. 

One might think that practicing the mantra would just facilitate a greater state of relaxation, and while this is true, the idea is that the word does it by itself. The benefits of transcendental meditation are massive, and it is one of the most well-researched forms of meditation, particularly for stress reduction.

3. Dynamic Meditation
Osho Dynamic Meditation

Another practice of meditation is dynamic meditation, which is very different from the first two forms mentioned. It involves physical movement and activity and is typically done in a group setting.

The most common form of dynamic meditation is OSHO Dynamic Meditation, which Osho Rajneesh founded.

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

Osho dynamic meditation involves five steps: rapid, chaotic breathing; "explosion" of body movements, yells, screams, etc.; 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 after it is over.

As you can probably tell from that brief description, this form of meditation is intense and highly energetic.

Osho himself said that it takes some time to achieve the full benefits, perhaps up to a month or more, but the more intense and focused you go at it, the greater the results will be (and the quicker they'll come about).

4. Tai Chi
Tai Qi Group

Another type of meditation that involves physical movement is tai chi. However, physical movement is probably the only similarity tai chi has with Osho meditation, given that the latter is supposed to be much more calming and relaxing.

As you might know, Tai Chi originated in China as a martial art but is now recognized as a form of meditation. Often called "meditation in motion," it involves various movements you perform while aiming to stay present. 

The aim is to focus on all the subtleties of the body, noting any feelings, sensations, and other physical aspects and flow smoothly from one movement to the next while fully engaging with each movement. In this way, tai chi acts to develop complementary (perhaps even synergistic) relaxation of both the mind and body.

5. Trance Dance
Bushmen Trance Dance

Meditation is probably not the first thing you think of when you hear about Africa, but make no mistake, this practice is integrated into many cultures and traditions as well. One of the best examples is the meditative practice of the San people of Botswana and Namibia, also known as the African Bushmen.

These people perform what is known as a "trance dance." This dance is an indigenous ritual and is one of their most important religious practices as it offers a way to heal those who are suffering in any way. It typically involves singing and dancing around a fire all night.

It is a sensational, highly energetic, emotional, and passionate ritual, and the dancers utilize all of their energy to reach an altered state of consciousness. At this point, they are supposed to feel the healing power within them and then use it for healing others who need it.

These individuals build up all of their positive and healing energy and feel the vibration of it, and they pass it on to others in a community-wide healing ceremony. They can usually reach a trance-like or hypnotic state, which also plays a role in the healing as they can be fully in the present moment and at one with everything and everyone around them.

So, they don't have a pre-specified goal of staying in the present moment like most people who meditate do, yet their fantastic ritual by nature takes them entirely into the present moment regardless. Once exhausted, they often collapse and experience meditation.

6. Mindfulness (Western)
Woman meditating with app

Like Buddhist meditation, the West took many of the mindfulness aspects of that meditation and tried to transfer them to daily life.

Initially, mindfulness faced some roadblocks because many people thought it was tied strictly to religious beliefs and only practiced by certain people. But research findings and discoveries rooted in scientific methods showed that mindfulness is a very simple capacity and inherent in all humans, which ultimately led to greater implementation in the West.

Today, many mindfulness is a rapidly growing health trend in the West. Defined as fully attending to the present moment and being aware of everything going on around, it applies to everyday situations, such as folding the laundry, eating lunch, or taking a walk. All it takes is a purposeful effort to focus on the present moment. What do you see, hear, feel, taste, etc.?

In contrast, mindlessness involves a distracted mind, typically from replaying past memories or worrying about the future. As awareness and training continue to increase, more and more people are likely to implement a mindful lifestyle and experience the health benefits, reducing anxiety and improving the overall quality of life.

As with any form of meditation, the goal is never to reach an empty mind but instead just to notice the thoughts and feelings as they come in a nonjudgmental manner and then let them pass through as they may.

Ultimately, this creates a highly grounded state to manage cognitive, emotional, and overall mental states more easily.

So what's the best?

With an understanding of these different forms, the question becomes, which one is best for enhancing critical thinking and problem-solving?

In reality, there isn't a best practice. Ultimately, it's what works for you. It depends on your unique situation, personality, characteristics, and so forth. Whatever is most practical is the best. If all paths lead to the same outcome, try different things and see for yourself. Just being more aware of your breath is a fantastic start.

The main message is that all of these practices offer a great way to increase mental clarity, groundedness in the present, and heightened awareness, all of which enhance critical thinking and problem-solving.

An easy way to get started and jumpstart the engines is by using an app, especially for people with little to no experience with this practice.

Top-Rated Apps

Headspace
Headspace App

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

Calm
Calm App

Calm is another top-rated mindfulness app with over 100 million downloads. The latest ratings state that it has a 4.8 out of 5. It offers its own set of unique tools such as guided meditations, mindfulness programs, breathing exercises, sleep stories, music and nature sounds, calming mind-body practices, and even a "calm kids" section. Another great addition is a masterclass explicitly focused on creativity, peak performance, and mental training.

Insight
Insight

Insight Training is a free app with thousands of free meditations on many different topics, such as sleep, calm, stress, morning rituals, and deep healing. Like the other apps, it also includes articles, videos, and other informational pieces, many by experts in mindfulness and meditation.

Ten Percent Happier
Ten Percent Happier App

Ten Percent Happier offers a number of guided meditations and practical teachings that you can utilize anytime, anywhere. The app uses some of the top experts and teachers of meditation in the world, so you can be confident knowing that the right people are guiding you.

mylife

mylife is unique because it recommends activities based on current emotions you check off when signing in. It offers meditation, yoga, guided breathing, journaling, and other activities geared towards your emotional state when using it.

Conclusion

Overall, studies show that implementing a mindfulness practice is very beneficial when practiced regularly. The benefits will translate into every area of your life, with enhanced executive functioning, increased cognitive flexibility, and greater self-awareness, all upgrading your problem-solving and critical thinking faculties.

Becoming more mindful has incredible benefits for mental and physical well-being. As you've seen from this article, it also offers many ways to enhance critical thinking and improve problem-solving abilities.

Given that there are many ways to get started, all based on your personal preferences, needs, characteristics, goals, and so forth, it should be relatively simple to start practicing. Yet, simple does not mean easy!

If you decide to incorporate mindfulness into your day, know that it will take some time to develop. Just let the practice happen as it may, and it will improve over time. "Trying" to meditate is the wrong idea; you just have to "be." Again, apps are fantastic and giving you the extra boost in the beginning.

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