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Susan L. Smalley Ph.D.
Susan L. Smalley Ph.D.

Mind-wandering and mindfulness

If you haven't tried mindfulness meditation yet, you must.

If you haven't tried mindfulness meditation yet, you must. A new study by scientists at Yale and the University of Oregon just gave us another reason why.

This new study looked at the effects of mindfulness meditation practice on the brain state called the ‘default-mode network' or DMN. The DMN has been shown to be important in self-referencing (helping us shape our view of ‘who we are') and in mind-wandering. While mind-wandering may be helpful sometimes (it is linked to creativity when you are aware that you are mind-wandering) most of us mind-wander up to 50% of the time, and without any awareness that we are doing so. This in effect means we are not present with what we are doing for half our lives, instead, our minds are wandering to other sorts of thoughts - worries, ruminations, thoughts of the past or future, etc.

Scientists have previously shown that being in a mind-wandering state - instead of aware of present moment activities - is not such a happy state. We are generally happier when we are not mind-wandering. The exception to this is when we mind-wander to happy thoughts but we only do that about one third of the time; two-thirds of our mind-wandering thought content is stressful or neutral and that puts us in less happy moods.

The new study investigates the brains of experienced meditations compared to non-meditators during three types of activities present in mindfulness meditation. The three activities are ‘concentration' (e.g. observing the breath), ‘loving-kindness' (wishing oneself well - e.g. may I be happy, may I be full of joy), and ‘choiceless awareness' (being aware of any thought, feeling or body sensation - noticing it arise and disappear). Using brain imaging (fMRI) techniques, the study found clear differences in the brains of the mediators compared to controls.

1. The DMN was less activated in meditators and they reported less mind wandering. The finding seems to extend to the meditators whether they were meditating or just lying still (resting state). Given other evidence that mindfulness improves mood, this finding suggests that reducing activation of DMN may be part of the reason mindfulness increases happiness.

2. There was increased connectivity of different parts of the DMN in meditators than controls. This means that the wiring between regions that make up the DMN look different between the two groups. It suggests that mindfulness practice increases connections between important DMN regions, perhaps making the system better in communication. It is analogous to an orchestra with the different sections - string, horn, etc. - being more in tune with one another.

The study needs replication as it was based on a small group of subjects (12 meditators/13 controls) but findings are consistent with other research that has shown changes in brain regions involved in the DMN with meditation - both structurally and functionally.

Mindfulness is a state of awareness of present experience with curiosity or acceptance. There are now a wide range of exercises to increase mindfulness, many drawn from the over 2500 years of ‘research and development' carried out largely in Buddhist settings. These ancient exercises have been translated into ones appropriate for use in secular settings and are now being used and studied in institutions around the world from business to medicine to law to education.

It's best to try mindfulness meditation and discover the benefits yourself, but remember, there is science out there to tell you how and why it works.

For guided free online mindfulness meditations, go to

Ref: Brewer et al. Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity (PNAS article off web:

About the Author
Susan L. Smalley Ph.D.

Susan L. Smalley, Ph.D., is a professor and behavior geneticist at the UCLA Semel Institute and the Founding Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).

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