From Intelligence to Wisdom | The Power of Meditation & Reflective Thinking

From Intelligence to Wisdom | The Power of Meditation & Reflective Thinking


In his wildly popular book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” nobel prize winning scientist Daniel Kahneman coined and popularized the notion of two distinct thinking modes.  The first quick, instinctive and reactive has a strong evolutionary basis along humans to survive.  Taking in quick snapshots (sensory stimulus) of the world around us is a way to protect us from hazards. 

The other is our slow, deliberate, analytical and consciously effortful mode of reasoning which requires a great deal of left hemispheric capability. 

While it would seem obvious that the second, more logically, way of thinking should dominate it turns out that the exact opposite is true.  We are naturally inclined toward the first style or reactive thinking.  “Too often, instead of slowing things down and analyzing them, System 2 is content to accept the easy but unreliable story about the world that System 1 feeds to it.  These two thought systems [….] arrive at different results even given the same inputs,” says Kahnman. 

A big part of the reason is that our our conscious minds have surprisingly limited capacity,  says researcher Hans Gelter.  Tapping into our more logical reasoning, or reflective thinking, is a slow active process of structured thinking rather than a live stream of consciousness giving the brain time “to create a suitable picture of the world,” says Gelter. 

In other words, while we are naturally inclined to think reactively to the conscious mind, it uses a very small part of the total capacity of the brain.   Wisdom requires reflection.  Slow thinking that allows the time and space to summon the full powers of intelligence and experience.  It not only allows us to make better decisions in the short term it has proven to increase general wellbeing long term by reducing anxiety and enabling a stronger sense of purpose.  Armed with strong reflective thinking skills we develop a more balanced self-awareness and understanding of our interactions with the world and are able to choose logically which thoughts and actions are worthy of time and energy.

While understanding why reflective thinking is so important, practically speaking it is hard to overcome the natural biological instinct to think reactively.  So how do we do it? In a word, meditation.

5 Categories of Brain Waves & Understanding How Meditation Works

1. Gamma State: (30 - 100Hz) This is the state of hyperactivity and active learning. Gamma state is the most opportune time to retain information. This is why educators often have audiences jumping up and down or dancing around — to increase the likelihood of permanent assimilation of information. If over stimulated, it can lead to anxiety.

2. Beta State: (13 - 30Hz) Where we function for most of the day, beta state is associated with the alert mind state of the prefrontal cortex. This is a state of the “working” or “thinking mind” — analytical, planning, assessing and categorizing. 

3. Alpha State: (9 - 13Hz) Brain waves start to slow down out of thinking mind. We feel more calm, peaceful and grounded. We often find ourselves in an “alpha state” after a yoga class, a walk in the woods, a pleasurable sexual encounter or during any activity that helps relax the body and mind. We are lucid, reflective, have a slightly diffused awareness. The hemispheres of the brain are more balanced (neural integration).

4. Theta State: (4 - 8Hz) We are able to begin meditation. This is the point where the verbal/thinking mind transitions to the meditative/visual mind. We begin to move from the planning mind to a deeper state of awareness (often felt as drowsy), with stronger intuition, more capacity for wholeness and complicated problem solving. The theta state is associated visualization.

5. Delta State: (1-3 Hz) Tibetan monks that have been meditating for decades can reach this in an alert, wakened phase, but most of us reach this final state during deep, dreamless sleep.


Researchers in Norway found marked changes in electrical brain wave activity associated with wakeful, relaxed attention.  Specifically they the EEG showed beta waves during meditation and resting with a much greater frequency of theta waves among experienced meditation practiconers.  While stress is inevitable, “those who practice medition, (…)go down quicker to normal.  In some people, they develop the natural capacity, that when the stress is over, they de-stress more or less immediately.  So the capacity to slow down when needed and mobilize the resources when needed are more pronounced.  By being a meditator, to say it in a different way, the brain and body become more flexible.  More readily adapting to the demands of the situation from moment to moment”  says Dr. Are Holen of the findings of his study.  “Spontaneous wandering of the mind is something you become more aware of and familiar with when you meditate,” summarizes Holen’s colleague Professor Øyvind Ellingsen.

The Norway researchers found nondirective meditation specifically is the most effective way to train the brain. This involves meditating on a sound, or breath, but allows the mind to wander at will. "Because practitioners do not actively pursue a particular experience or state of mind…. [t]hey cultivate the ability to tolerate the spontaneous wandering of the mind without getting too much involved.”

Nondirective can also be the most difficult form of meditation in that it is so free form.  Allowing the brain to wander may be counterproductive for a beginner who needs something to concentrate on in order to learn the art of meditation.   

In this blog we review various kinds of meditation and provided resources on getting started.

No matter which style you choose the keys to success are simple.

  1. Just start.
  2. Be consistent - 10-15 minutes each day are enough. Don’t get frustrated that you are not ‘getting it’.  Doing it is 95% of the path towards ‘getting it.
  3. Show discipline – to truly change your brain meditation needs to become a habit.  Drawing on your resilience and discipline is fundamental to developing any new habit


Power of  Non-Directive Meditation

The Scientific Power of Meditation.  Awesome video on the science behind meditation

Thinking, Fast and SlowDaniel Kahneman (25 October 2011). 

Also in live light

How to Meditate | What's your style?
How to Meditate | What's your style?

Any meditation will have a profound effective if practiced regularly.  Find your style and just do it!

Simplicity requires a great deal of consideration and commitment to what is really essential.