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Commonsense explanations of neuroscience

Brain Scans Show How Meditation Improves Mental Focus

Meditators have stable brains and stable thoughts.

People who regularly practice meditation may improve their mental focus by altering brain function. Compared to non-meditators, they may be better equipped to quiet brain activity related to mind-wandering, a new study in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests. This may come as good news, considering the buzz on our increasingly shrinking attention spans.

The study, by Italian neuroscientist Giuseppe Pagnoni, found that meditation not only changes brain patterns, but it also confers advantages in mental focus that may improve cognitive performance.

For the study, Pagnoni, who has a longstanding interest in how meditation affects the brain, recruited twelve Zen meditators who had been practicing for at least three years. In a recent article at LiveScience, Charles Q. Choi quotes Pagnoni saying he "had to screen—and discard—a number of colorful characters who…declared that they were meditating regularly by screaming in a towel while stomping their feet on the ground, or that they were communicating frequently with beings of other planets—such are the unexpected joys of this research!"

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He compared the final group of meditators to a control group of twelve volunteers who had never meditated, but were the same age and had the same education level as the meditators.  Pagnoni then put each of them into an MRI machine to measure brain patterns.  

Compared to non-meditators, meditators had more stability in their ventral posteromedial cortex (vPMC). The vPMC, a region linked to spontaneous thoughts and mind-wandering, lies on the underside of the brain, in the middle of your head.

Pagnoni thought the vPMC might be important for mental focus because, in most people, it’s almost always active. As he writes, many fMRI studies use “the so-called ‘resting state,’” where subjects lie in a brain scanner and with instructions “not to engage in any mental act.” However, even when people tried to turn off their thoughts, researchers consistently found activity emerging from the vPMC. This led to the conception of a “default mode network”—brain activity that’s constantly running in the background. Pagnoni thought that enhanced control over default activity may be what separates experienced meditators from novices, and may also be crucial for focus.

Pagnoni’s study confirmed his hypothesis. While both meditators and non-meditators had some activity in their vPMC, the increased stability in meditators may mean that they can better rein in wild thoughts so they don’t snowball out of control. Increased vPMC stability may curb mind-wandering.

Pagnoni then tested subjects’ ability to focus using the rapid visual information processing test. In the task, subjects look at a computer screen while numbers flashed rapidly, a little more than 100 per minute, in a random order, like 4-8-2-5.  The goal was to press a button anytime one of three target sequences appeared. For example, one target sequence was 2-4-6, so as you watched the numbers fly by, 1-5-2-4-6, you should hit a button as soon as you see the target sequence. If you waited too long, you missed it. If you hit the button when the target didn’t appear, that’s a false alarm. The more target sequences you got, and the fewer false alarms, the better your score. Such a tedious task demands intense focus.

As Pagnoni expected, meditators outperformed the control group on the task, spotting more target sequences and with fewer false alarms. Zen meditation often involves sitting in a lotus position while attempting to regulate awareness by focusing on one thing, such as breathing or counting, but clearing the mind of other thoughts. With practice, the ability to meditate improves, and the results of this study suggest that its benefits extend beyond meditation.

Pagnoni also found a direct relationship between brain function and mental focus that held true for both meditators and non-meditators: for all subjects, vPMC stability was linked to test performance. This suggests that vPMC stability may be a signpost for mental focus for everyone, not just meditators. Accordingly, vPMC activity may be useful for understanding how ADHD affects the brain, possibly offering solutions for wandering, impulsive minds.

Pagnoni’s findings may also explain why meditation and mindfulness training are increasingly being used to combat depression, a condition characterized by recurring negative thoughts. By controlling the brain regions responsible for letting the mind wander to gloomy thoughts, someone with the blues may be able to keep their mind trained on the positive.

Many meditative practices aim to sustain attention while ignoring unwanted thoughts, so it makes sense that meditators have enhanced focus, but a large current of Western culture remains skeptical of the value of traditionally Eastern practices. Choi quotes Pagnoni again, "It is important that this type of research be conducted with high scientific standards because it carries a long-standing stigma—perhaps well-deserved?—of being wishy-washy."

Pagnoni’s study provides biological evidence for changes meditation might produce. It suggests that our choices and behaviors have a big impact on our brain and, ultimately, our mental function.  It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to go “OM.”

Does anyone have any experience with changes in focus from meditation practice? Please share.

photo credit: Suicine

Source: Pagnoni G. Dynamical Properties of BOLD Activity from the Ventral Posteromedial Cortex Associated with Meditation and Attentional Skills. J Neurosci. 2012 Apr 11;32(15):5242-9.

Joshua Gowin, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in behavioral neuroscience at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

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