“Untraining The Brain”: Meditation and Executive Function

“In a fascinating review of the cognitive neuroscience of attention, authors Raz and Buhle note that most research on attention focuses on defining situations in which it is no longer required to perform a task – in other words, the automatization of thought and behavior. Yet relatively few studies focus on whether thought and behavior can be de-automatized – or, as I might call it if I were asking for trouble, deprogrammed.

What would count as deprogramming? For example, consider the Stroop task, where subjects must name the ink color of each word in a list of color words (e.g., “red” might be written in blue ink, and the task is to say “blue” while suppressing the urge to automatically read the word “red”). Reaction time is reliably increased when subjects name the ink color of incongruent words (“red” written in blue ink) relative to congruent words (“red” written in red ink), presumably because the subjects need to inhibit their prepotent tendency to read the words. But is it possible to regain control over our automatized processes – in this case, reading – and hence name the ink color of incongruent words as quickly as we would name the ink color of congruent or even non-words?

Some meditative practices purport to reverse automatization of thought and behavior, such as transcendental or mindfulness meditation, and indeed there is some evidence that these techniques can reduce interference on the Stroop task. For example, in a study by Alexander, Langer, Newman, Chandler, and Davies from the Journal of Personality and Social psychology, 73 elderly participants were randomly assigned to either no treatment, a transcendental meditation program, mindfulness training, or relaxation training. Note that transcendental and mindfulness techniques are frequently described as inducing a state of “pure consciousness” during which the mind is “silent,” and yet not empty: in this state, meditators claim to be intensely aware only of awareness itself. Less cryptically, this state is also referred to as “restful alertness.”

(via Developing Intelligence. See also: “Attention Training” via Meditation Influences the Ventral and Dorsal Attentional Networks Differently)


  1. In the study you cite on transcendental meditation, it should be noted that the lead author, Alexander, had a decades-long involvement with the TM organization. While recognizing that meditation is good for most practitioners, many critics consider Transcendental Meditation a cult founded by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. For an alternative view of the TM Movement, readers may be interested in checking out http://tmfree.blogspot.com/ , http://trancenet.net/ , or my counseling site, http://KnappFamilyCounseling.com/cultsb.html , where individuals recovering from Transcendental Meditation and similar groups will find helpful information.

    John M. Knapp, LMSW

  2. Omkar Kulkarni

    July 1, 2008 at 2:08 am

    TM is having a strong base of logic behind it. In India words are not mere words, they are the origin of everything. For every power of GOD a word or letter or a very small word (like OM) is given. Which if uttered with full concentration invokes that power. This is a huge science which cannot be explained in few words. For more information read “Rajyog” of Vivekanand and check Japa section of URL http://www.indiaoz.com.au/hinduism/articles/index.shtml

  3. Response to John M. Knapp comment:

    Many critics consider John M. Knapp to be a self-promoting spammer who has nothing worthwhile to offer, but tries to make money by creating fear about useful programs like TM. A previous post of his indicated that he is a disgruntled former TM’er. With any organization that has attracted millions of participants, it is inevitable that a few people will become detractors. While I am impressed that John M. Knapp has shown the resourcefulness to transform his disgruntlement into a career, I do object to him labelling TM as a cult and spamming every article about TM on the Web. Although it is perhaps more worthy of sympathy to see an individual allowing his personal or professional life to revolve around some lingering bitterness, in the interests of fairness I feel I must counter the comments he is leaving.

    The Transcendental Meditation technique has helped millions of people and will continue to do so. Its benefits have been validated by hundreds of scientific studies over the past 35 years, many of which were published in peer-reviewed journals. Its efficacy has been recognized by the National Institutes of Health, the premier body overseeing medical research in the US. And it has been introduced into school programs in the US, Canada, Peru, India, South Africa, the UK, and other countries. In the US, TM is taught by a federally-recognized nonprofit organization.

    For more information, just Google ‘transcendental meditation’ and you’ll find plenty of good sources.

  4. Scott Carlson

    July 7, 2008 at 1:38 am

    Wow, just have to respond to inspector108. I’m not for or against meditation or TM, just trying to read more about it. Cruised over to knapp’s sites and found some interesting info, presenting pros and cons, and links to scholarly articles. Don’t know how commenting becomes “spam”, just because you can’t deal with criticism! Of course every group has detractors- and I want to hear both sides, not just dismiss them! Isn’t TM making money too? Meditation comes in many varieties, from what I understand, TM is basically a religious take on meditation, connected with the mahareshi and hinduism. Sorry, but as an atheist, I’m interested in learning how meditation effects the brain, not the soul! Just because it appears in schools doesn’t mean it’s not BS- I’m a teacher and education has tons of fads. Of course there are interesting studies on TM- and TM proponents will show you all the ones that say it’s a good thing. Will they show you ones that don’t fit their agenda? Reading your comment gives me a creepy feeling, and makes me thing that TM could very well be a cult, when I see someone so defensive as yourself. Note also that mindfulness was as effective as TM in this study, without the need to worship hindu gods!

  5. Hey, nice tips. Perhaps I’ll buy a glass of beer to that person from that forum who told me to visit your site 🙂

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