We spend a lot of time thinking about what is NOT happening, contemplating events that occurred in the past or that might happen in the future. Indeed, this sort of "mind-wandering" is thought to be the default operating mode of our brains.
Although being able to think about what isn't going on around us can help us learn from the past and productively reason about the future, it comes at an emotional cost. Simply put, a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. People report being less happy when their minds are wandering compared to when they are not. But, a new study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that there is something we can do to decrease the mind-wandering: it's meditation.
As it happens, experienced meditators report less mind wandering while meditating than people without any meditation experience. And, even when meditators are simply asked to not think of anything in particular, their brains also do a better job of keeping them present-focused.
To explore the power of meditation in curbing mind-wandering, a group of experienced meditators and a group of meditation novices were asked to perform several different types of meditations while their brains were scanned using fMRI. The experienced meditators had over 10 years and 10,000 hours of mindfulness meditation experience under their belts. The meditation novices had none. Importantly, each non-meditator was selected to match a meditator in terms of their country of origin, primary language, sex, age, race, education, and employment status. The idea was to compare folks who were pretty similar in all aspects, except for their meditation experience.
Mindfulness plays a central role in many forms of meditation and includes two main components: (i) maintaining attention on your immediate experience and (ii) maintaining an attitude of acceptance toward this experience. Because of this present-centered focus, the researchers had a hunch that people who practiced mindfulness might be better at staying in the present - and not having their minds wander - during their meditative practice. While their brains were scanned, people performed three standardized meditation techniques commonly taught within the mindfulness tradition: Concentration, Loving-Kindness, and Choiceless Awareness. Here are the instructions used for each one:
Concentration: "Please pay attention to the physical sensation of the breath wherever you feel it most strongly in the body. Follow the natural and spontaneous movement of the breath, not trying to change it in any way. Just pay attention to it. If you find that your attention has wandered to something else, gently but firmly bring it back to the physical sensation of the breath."
Loving-Kindness: "Please think of a time when you genuinely wished someone well. Using this feeling as a focus, silently wish all beings well, by repeating a few short phrases of your choosing over and over. For example: May all beings be happy, may all beings be healthy, may all beings be safe from harm."
Choiceless Awareness: "Please pay attention to whatever comes into your awareness, whether it is a thought, emotion, or body sensation. Just follow it until something else comes into your awareness, not trying to hold onto it or change it in any way. When something else comes into your awareness, just pay attention to it until the next thing comes along"
While meditating, brain areas commonly active when our minds wander were relatively less active in experienced meditators compared to controls. But, most interesting, even when the meditators weren't instructed to do any sort of meditation at all their brains looked different. At rest, meditators showed stronger cross-talk among brain areas typically involved in mind wandering and brain areas involved in working memory and self control. As I have blogged about before, working memory helps keep what we want in mind and distracting information out. The meditators seemed to have developed the ability to automatically activate working memory when mind wandering threatened to take over, allowing them to control and dampen thoughts that might take them astray. Meditation practices appear to transform people's experience when they are not doing anything at all into one that resembles a meditative state - a more present-centered state of mind.
Of course, it is possible that the meditation experts didn't learn to curb their wandering mind through meditation, but rather were attracted to meditation in the first place because their minds tended not to wander. However, a host of recent work showing that meditation changes the brain points to its potentially powerful influence on mind wandering.
Mind wandering isn't just a common activity, it's thought to occur in roughly 50% of our awake life. Many philosophical, contemplative and religious practices teach us that happiness comes from living "in the moment." One way this can be accomplished may be through meditative practices that train our brains to rein in our wandering minds.
For more on the links between body and mind, check out my book Choke!
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