Groundbreaking research on meditation and the brain

Nondirective meditation activates the brain’s resting network, allowing processing of thoughts, memories, and emotions

brain scanning of meditation

The “resting brain” is not idle. The resting brain simply activates other networks than it does when you concentrate or attend to an external task. The predominant resting system in the brain is called the “default mode network”, which is responsible for our wandering mind: seemingly random thoughts and memories pop up in a continuous stream of consciousness.

At times, this may distract us from important tasks we have to do. At other times, we may welcome the wandering mind as a source of more or less interesting thoughts, though there may be periods when we would rather be without spontaneous thoughts of worry or sadness. Maybe our mind-wandering during the day represents a true picture of ourselves.

brain and peopleNo empty mind

So what happens when you meditate? On the one hand, people often claim that meditation is all about emptying your mind, right? You attain peace and calmness by relieving stress and worry. On the other hand, meditation may also give deep rest, so maybe meditation is related to the brain’s resting network?

A team of neuroscientists from Norway and Australia (The Norwegian University of Science and Technology, The University of Oslo, and The University of Sydney) has recently investigated experienced practitioners of Acem Meditation with fMRI scanning, to determine what goes on in the brain during meditation. The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, brain activation was greater during meditation than during simple resting, clearly refuting the idea of the empty mind during meditation. Interestingly, the areas of the brain that showed increased activation during meditation were part of the default mode, or resting, network. Among these areas were those that are known to be allocated to processing self-related memories and emotions.

Nondirective meditation vs. concentration

This finding fits well with some types of meditation, such as Acem Meditation, called nondirective meditation types. In nondirective meditation, spontaneously-occurring thoughts, images, sensations, memories, and emotions are allowed to pass freely through the mind during practice, even when attention is effortlessly focused on the meditation object, in this case the inner meditation sound.

The study also investigated what happens when the spontaneous flow of wandering thoughts is somewhat restricted by a more concentrated focus of attention, not common to nondirective meditation. Under those conditions, the resting network was considerably less activated. The greatest difference between nondirective and concentrative meditation, when compared directly, was precisely some of the key areas related to the processing of memories and emotions. Activation of these was significantly greater during nondirective meditation.

So it seems that some types of meditation, in particular the nondirective type such as Acem Meditation, activates brain areas that facilitate mind-wandering and processing of self-related thoughts and emotions, more so than during simple resting.

Copy editor: Ann Kunish

5 Comments

  1. Katarina

    Today’s research news is that Atzheimers development is slowed in persons with a higher education because their brains are better at switching from a resting state to a working state. It is precisely this switch that meditators train. Although it has not been directly studied I believe there is every chance that regular meditation protects against development of Alzheimers disease:

    http://www.forskning.no/artikler/2014/juni/394965

    Original article in English here:
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hbm.22489/abstract

  2. Meditation is a good therapy to gaining the self-confidence. Natural healing procedures helps you to removing in any type of mental and physical stress.

  3. I guess it is no surprise to meditators but it is great to know that research is showing the positive effects on people who meditate. This study shows that a 10 day Vipassana course had a positive effect on inmates: http://ijo.sagepub.com/content/57/2/133.abstract.

  4. It is simply fantastic that modern science is beginning to catch up to what practitioners have always known. I personally remember when I began to meditate and witnessed all of the changes happening within. I think the changes come from having more receptivity to certain brainwave states. Many experienced meditators have greater access to the states of theta and alpha, which could be part of why their brains are different. I hope the research continues and hopefully meditation can become as commonplace as eating lunch. Imagine what the world could be like.

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