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