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A neuroscientist and the Dalai Lama walk into a room

This is not the beginning of a joke. Rather, it was the beginning of a friendship. In 1992, His Holiness invited neuroscientist Richard Davidson to his home in India. An unlikely partnership arose--one which has sparked a new wave of investigation into a practice once thought by many Westerners to be esoteric or wishy-washy.

Before starting the rest of this post, stop. Take a breath. As you breathe in, pay attention to the coolness in your nostrils, and nothing else. As you breathe out, feel the warmth of the air exiting. You’ve just taken a bench press for the brain. That is, you’ve just had a small sample of meditation. It’s a practice that neuroscience, of all disciplines, has helped push into the mainstream thanks to neuroscientists like Richard Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Today, it has become increasingly common to find even business-suited professionals like Rupert Murdoch in a cross-legged lotus pose. Why the hype?

Meditation as brain-training

Several forms of meditation appear to be particularly effective for brain-training. Brain-training for what, you might ask? Here’s a diverse list of things meditation may positively benefit:

I myself have made a new years resolution to get back on the meditation bandwagon as new results continue to astonish. My personal preference is for mindfulness meditation because of its attentional benefits. (In fact, I practiced mindfulness immediately prior to this post.)

How to get started

Starting a meditation practice can be a challenge, with all those thoughts zipping around in your head. Luckily, there are some fantastic resources for those wishing to pick up the habit. Here are three of my favorites:

1. Meditation via iPhone

The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center provides a free series of guided audio meditations, some of which are specialized for beginners. I’ve used these to meditate on New York City and Chicago subways during commutes. All you need is a pair of headphones and an audio player. I particularly dig their “Body Scan for Sleep” podcast for enabling one of The Think Tank’s other recommended brain-boosters. Another great iPhone resource is the app, covered here by Lifehacker.

2. Free meditation centers

Almost every city I’ve ever visited has a place you can dock for free or donation-based meditation sessions. Often these sessions are guided by an experienced expert, which is especially helpful if you’re a beginner. You can find meditation centers to suit almost every disposition: I’ve seen guided sessions held at religious institutions like the Jewish Community Center, hardcore gyms like UChicago’s Ratner Athletics Center, and just about everything in between.  

3. Brian Eno

Brian Eno’s 1978 Ambient 1: Music for Airports is hands-down the greatest soundtrack for meditation (Amazon link). Want to fight about it? Tweet us at @UCThinkTank or MEET ME OUTSIDE IN FIVE MIN--ehem--ommmmmmm….