Building on a wave of compelling new research suggesting meditation practice positively affects brain structure and function, researchers at Yale University have found meditation practice to reduce activity in brain regions associated with mind wandering. Such research is integral in helping us to begin understanding the precise mechanisms by which meditation exerts positive effects across numerous numerous domains.
Judson Brewer and colleagues assessed the impact of mindfulness-based meditation on activity along the default mode network (DMN) brain axis, a region associated with attentional lapses, anxiety, and certain disorders (i.e., ADHD and Alzheimer’s disease). Functional MRI (brain imaging) was employed to determine brain activity during resting and meditating states among experienced meditators and meditation-naïve subjects.
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Three types of meditations were measured: concentration (focusing on a single object or experience, such as the breath), loving-kindness (attending to thoughts of kindness and compassion towards oneself and others); and choice-less awareness (allowing attention to note any element of experience as it arises and passes through present awareness).
Experienced meditators were found to feature less DMN activation and mind wandering than did novices. Different connectivity patterns were seen in experienced meditators compared to controls in a number of brain regions, most notably the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (associated with cognitive control and attentional resources).
The researchers note their results "support the hypothesis that alterations in the DMN are related to reduction in mind-wandering."
While these results are promising and feature a host of clinical implications, many more questions remain. Unanswered is the critical issue of causation; does meditation change the brain, or are those with a preexisting proclivity for reduced mind wandering and other constituents of positive psychological functioning drawn to meditation practice, potentially biasing study outcomes?
Dr. Charles Raison, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, has conducted research which “suggests that some things thought to be the result of meditation might be cause of meditation.” He muses those gifted at inhibiting mind wandering may be inherently predisposed and simply fulfilling their karmic path, thus explicating why meditation draws them and not others. Future studies may elucidate which individuals may profit most from mindfulness practice, and which approaches are potentially best suited for those less intrinsically talented at ruminative inhibition.
Ultimately, longitudinal studies conducted in randomly assigned treatment groups (e.g., meditation group vs. non-meditation control group) would best support discernment of the causal direction of mindfulness meditation and related mechanisms.
Have you found meditation to improve your focus and/or reduce your mind wandering? If so, what type of meditation do you practice?