Meditation prevents mind-wandering

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Photo by Yale.

A recent Yale study has verified that meditation can help improve concentration skills.

Judson Brewer, assistant professor of psychiatry and director of the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic, found that experienced meditators are able to deactivate the specific portion of their brain that is involved with mind-wandering and often correlated with unhappiness and anxiety. The findings, published in the November edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, support the theory that meditation can be scientifically studied and has neurological effects. The technique may also help meditators improve, as researchers will be able to use brain scans to determine whether meditation is actually having an effect.

Brewer and his colleagues studied the brain activity of people who meditate on a regular basis and saw that there was decreased activity in areas of the brain called the default mode network, which contains the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices. These areas have been linked to lapses of attention and disorders such as anxiety, Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, and even the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. People who had minimal previous meditation experience, by contrast, did not see a change in brain activity from doing meditation exercizes.

The subjects were allowed to choose one of the three major types of meditation: “mindfulness of breath, loving-kindness and choiceless awareness.” Brewer said that the deactivation of the default mode network was consistent in experienced meditators across all three types.

“We now know what regions [of the brain] to go after, and we can give people specific feedback by looking at their brains and tell them whether they’re meditating correctly,” Brewer said. “These findings will help people improve their meditation practices so they can stabilize themselves and put themselves in the right state of mind.”

Meditation has already helped people to quit smoking, and in the future could help people with other addictions and with anxiety disorders, Brewer said. He added that he hopes his research facilitates teaching effective meditation in clinics.

“Their findings are pretty cool because they used analyses that haven’t been done before, and the research is pretty consistent with our current understandings,” said Fadel Zeidan, a researcher in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at Wake Forest University. Fadel’s past research has shown that meditation can be used to reduce pain, to a level on par with morphine, a pain-killer.

Sara Lazar, an associate researcher in the Psychiatry Department at Massachusetts General Hospital and psychology professor at Harvard Medical School, said that while several previous studies have demonstrated the connection between the default mode network and some pathological states, this is the first study to show that meditation can strengthen the brain’s tendency to focus rather than wander.

“This data will us understand how meditation practice leads to long-lasting changes in mental state,” Lazar said.

Meditation has been linked to changes in metabolism, blood pressure, brain activation and other bodily processes, and has been used in clinical settings as a stress and pain reliever.

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