A forthcoming publication in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports a brain imaging study that shows reduced brain activity during meditation in those brain areas that are typically quite active during day-dreaming or mind-wandering.
A research group led by Judson Brewer at the Yale School of Medicine c [update: J. Brewer is now Director of Research at the UMASS Center for Mindfulness] compared experienced meditators with meditation-naïve participants while they engaged in three different kinds of meditation. The researchers used fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to scan the brains of experienced meditators as well as matched meditation novices while they practiced concentrative meditation, loving kindness meditation and a choiceless awareness meditation.
Previous research has zoomed in on the so-called default mode network, comprising the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortex. Various studies have shown that this network of brain areas is particularly active when participants are not engaged with a specific task, when their mind is wandering or they are day-dreaming. Irrespective of the type of meditation, the meditators showed a relative decrease in activation in this default mode network. Presumably, their brain (or mind?) was less engaged in mind-wandering. These findings can be linked to a recent I-Phone study (pdf here), where participants, throughout the day, were asked to report their ongoing thoughts, feelings and actions. The more the minds were wandering, the study found, the unhappier they were.
These findings might thus provide a clue as to why Buddhist meditation is supposed to make people happier: Meditation helps us to stabilise the mind and engage less in mind wandering, leaving more room for happiness to flourish.
The researchers also found that when the default mode network was active in the experienced meditators other brain areas, associated with cognitive control and self-monitoring where also activated, suggesting that they are engaging more in monitoring of self-related thoughts. As I explained in a previous post, the change in the perspective on the self has been considered to be an important factor in (mindfulness) meditation.
This new study may thus provide a glimpse into what happens in the brain when meditators engage less in self-referential thoughts.
Brewer, J.A., Worhunsky, P.D., Gray, J.R., Tang, YY, Weber, J. & Kober, H. Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proceedings of theNationalAcademyof Sciences of theUSA. (early online publication, 23 Nov 2011) http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1112029108
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