How Does the Brain Work During Meditation?

Study Suggests Mind-Wandering During Meditation Linked to Deeper Thinking

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At a Glance:

  • Your brain processes more feelings and thoughts when you let your mind wander during meditation than when you try to concentrate on a specific thought.
  • Letting your mind wander can be more effective than trying to clear your mind.
  • Concentrating on a single thought or on breathing during meditation is only as effective as resting.
  • Millions of people practice meditation and research shows it has numerous health benefits, but little is known about how and why it works.

    Study Looks At Brain Activity During Different Types of Meditation

    Researchers have demonstrated that meditation can have a wide range of benefits. Lower stress, improved concentration, better sleep, increased working memory, improved fluid intelligence, and changes in attention have all been linked to the practice of medication.

    There are many different types of meditation, including concentrative meditation (focusing on a single thing), mindfulness meditation (becoming aware of wandering thoughts), tai chi, walking meditation, and many more. No matter which type is used, the overall goals are generally the same – to reduce stress, gain peace, increase mindfulness, improve concentration, and become more self-aware.

    What experts are not quite sure about, however, is exactly how and why this works. What exactly takes place in the brain during meditation? Is any particular type of meditation more effective than others?

    The available evidence is limited at best.

    One study by researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), the University of Oslo, and the University of Sydney offers some fresh insights into what happens in the brain during meditation and which type of meditation provides the greatest benefits.

    Nondirective or Concentrative Meditation: Which One Offers the Greatest Benefits?

    Meditation techniques can be divided into two main categories. The concentrative techniques involve focusing on breathing or specific thoughts. The goal with this type of meditation is to suppress all other thoughts.

    Nondirective meditation, on the other hand, involves focusing on breathing or a sound but also allowing the mind to wander.

    "Nondirective meditation techniques are practiced with a relaxed focus of attention that permits spontaneously occurring thoughts, images, sensations, memories, and emotions to emerge and pass freely, without any expectation that mind wandering should abate," explain the authors in the study's abstract.

    The study involved looking at MRI's of 14 experienced meditators and their brain activity as they either rested or meditated. The participants were asked to either focus on their breath as they let their minds wander (known as non-directive meditation) or to meditate while focusing on a specific thought (concentrative).

    A Wandering Mind Equals More Brain Activity

    Surprisingly, it was the nondirective form of meditation that revealed the highest amounts of brain activity.

    "I was surprised that the activity of the brain was greatest when the person's thoughts wandered freely on their own, rather than when the brain worked to be more strongly focused," explained NTNU researcher Jian Xu. "When the subjects stopped doing a specific task and were not really doing anything special, there was an increase in activity in the area of the brain where we process thoughts and feelings. It is described as a kind of resting network. And it was this area that was most active during nondirective meditation."

    Perhaps even more surprising, levels of brain activity during the concentrative meditation task were the same as when the participants were just resting.

    In many meditative traditions, mind wandering is viewed as a distraction that can lead to rumination, depression, and anxiety, so the goal of such approaches is to eliminate mind wandering and bring attention back to a single focal point.

    The results of this study indicate that such mind wandering can actually be beneficial and useful for overall well-being. Mind wandering may serve as a gateway to greater introspection, deeper thinking, improved memory retrieval, and increased self-awareness.

    More Room to Process Information

    The researchers suggest that these results indicate that nondirective meditation allows more room to process emotions and memories.

    "This area of the brain has its highest activity when we rest. It represents a kind of basic operating system, a resting network that takes over when external tasks do not require our attention. It is remarkable that a mental task like nondirective meditation results in even higher activity in this network than regular rest," explains the study's co-author Svend Davanger, a neuroscientist at the University of Oslo.

    An estimated 20 million people in the United States practice meditation on a regular basis, and the potential benefits of meditation mean that even more people might turn to these techniques to decrease stress and improve overall health.

    "Meditation is an activity that is practiced by millions of people. It is important that we find out how this really works," Davanger suggests.

    References:

    Xu, J., Vik, A., Groote, I. R., Lagopoulos, J., Holen, A., Ellingsen, O., Haberg, A. K., & Davanger, S. (2014). Nondirective meditation activates default mode network and areas associated with memory retrieval and emotional processing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8(86), doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00086

    Sliper Midling, A. (2014). How your brain works during meditation. GEMINI: Science News from NTNU and SINTEF. Retrieved from http://gemini.no/en/2014/05/how-your-brain-works-during-meditation/

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