How do you relate to your spontaneous thoughts?

Mind-wandering, brain and meditation

Svend Davanger, MD, PhD
Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Oslo
Meditation Instructor in Acem

meditation brainPsychologists and brain scientists have recently developed a common interest: spontaneous mental activity that occurs unrelated to any immediate tasks or interaction with the environment. One recent scientific article is titled “The era of the wandering mind? Twenty-first century research on self-generated mental activity”.

But why bother with a scientific investigation of daydreaming? Since the days of pioneer psychologist William James one hundred years ago, the study of spontaneous thoughts has been part of psychological science. Sigmund Freud received massive attention for a method of psychological treatment based on analyzing seemingly random thoughts that occur in the mind of the patient.

brain default mode meditationThe brain’s default mode
A leading American brain scientist, Marcus Raichle of Washington University, St. Louis, was instrumental in the discovery of what is now called the “default mode network” of the brain. This network is responsible for our wandering, spontaneous thoughts, and is partly distinct from other networks that we use for attending to immediate tasks, such as painting a house or playing chess.

Mind-wandering is mental processing in the default mode network, where we are typically occupied with things in the past and the future – “time travelling”. Other parts of the brain are used for ongoing tasks in the present, often involving interaction with our surroundings – such as painting the house. A small part of the brain located in our temples, the hippocampus, is probably involved in switching between these two modes of brain processing.

chess brain meditationRemembering the past, predicting the future
But again, why do we need the time travelling part, the wandering thoughts unrelated to current tasks? Some scientists tend to view these as junk thoughts, which we may be better off without. Other neuroscientists, such as Marcus Raichle, see this type of thought as integral to the brain’s function. According to him, the brain is in “the prediction business”, enabling us to plan for the future, be it just seconds or many years ahead. That is why we need mental time travel – remembering past events in order to better predict the future.

IMG_6261Nondirective meditation
Some types of meditation, called “nondirective meditation” by scientists, are designed to stimulate this kind of brain processing, the mind-wandering of the brain’s default mode network. Many clinical and experimental observations indicate that we need this spontaneous mental activity for our well-being.

Acem Meditation is a distinct type of nondirective meditation. More explicitly than many other meditation practices, it permits spontaneous, wandering thoughts, and in fact seems to stimulate these. One way of putting it is that Acem Meditation is like oiling the machinery of the default brain network, making it run more smoothly and efficiently in between our periods of active task-solving.

We need to train our brains to execute distinct tasks, such as reading or playing chess, but we also need to continuously monitor our past experiences in order to make better predictions for the future. Practicing nondirective meditation seems to be one way of training the brain for this function.

Copy editor: Ann Kunish

8 Comments

  1. Hi there,

    Love reading your blogs, they are great. It’s nice to be able to read info from reliable sources like this. I have spent plenty of time sifting through not so great blogs but I’m glad I’ve stumbled upon this one! I run a Meditation Retreat in Adelaide, which is run as a weekend meditation retreat. We also do Yoga Retreats as well. I like to be able to gain new knowledge through your blog to ensure that I am teaching up to date information to my retreat classes.

    Cheers!

    Peter.
    skillfulmind.com.au

  2. Thank you for this interesting article. From my personal experience, this wandering mind is an essential part of all meditation practices, even when there is some associated activities (meditation with mantra or pranayama/breathing techniques). Although the goal is sometime to calm the wandering mind, starting by recognizing its presence is an important part of meditation and it is great to see some scientific investigation on the topic.

  3. Betty

    My first introduction to meditation came from reading a great book, ” Get Balanced, Get Blissed: Nourishment for Body, Mind, and Soul” by Lynne Goldberg http://liveblissnow.com/. I am a firm believer in it now… thanks for your great advice as well!

  4. This is great. I find it very interesting how people tend to view the world through a prism which is themselves remembering their past experiences and predicting the future based on those memories.

    Everyone does it, and without a lot of conscious effort it can be hard to remove these beliefs. For example, if someone experienced trauma while in a car as a young girl/boy, they will have a negative image of driving and cars in later life, and thus will ‘predict’ that if they get in a car they’ll crash.

    It’s an interesting subject..

  5. It occurred to me as I read this article that our “time traveling” brain is both a blessing and a curse. It’s probably not a novel idea, but without this ability we would not be able to manipulate and change our environment the way we do. Being able to imagine the future is why we have bridges, computers, houses, etc. Any man-made items, really.

    On the other hand, getting lost in the past or the future can destroy our ability to live right now. We’re time traveling animals, but we’re still animals. Animals have to live in the now because it’s the only place life is actually happening. The constant tension between these two parts of our brains is largely what it means to be human. It’s a mixed bag, to say the least.

    • halvore

      Thanks for your comment, Greg. I agree, and we’re not alone. The research done by Jerome Singer and associates since the late 1950s points in the same direction – “daydreaming”, as he calls it, may be “positive” and “constructive” as well as problematic and even pathological. As suggested in this article, researchers investigating the default mode network also often take it almost for granted that the “mind-wandering” with which it is associated has a positive function, even if it may go awry from time to time. One interesting suggestion comes in a recent article by Svend Davanger (the author of the article above) and others, where the increase in mind-wandering during Acem Meditation is linked to brain areas for processing of emotions and episodic memories (see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3935386/). The processing aspect indicates to me that allowing even “unhappy” thoughts to come and go may be good for you, because the processing involved may provide release.

  6. JW

    How spontaneous thoughts in meditation are related to mental and emotional health is debated. Mindfulness meditation, for instance, allows emotions and thoughts to come and go through acceptance. Since mindfulness is related to being present in time in a somewhat directive way – it seems mindful meditation practices can function like a time stress vent: http://www.destress-now.com

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