Mindfulness training, in which people learn to focus more completely on what they are doing at the moment, can change brain wave activity in a crucial area, according to a study in the December 13, 2011 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Investigators used fMRI brain scan mapping to observe what happened in the brains of 12 experienced and 13 inexperienced meditators. They found that experienced meditators were better able to stay focused and bypass what’s known as the brain’s Default Mode Network. This network is activated when we experience “mind-wandering” throughout the day.
Mind-wandering can involve stressful preoccupation with the past or future and is a common mental activity that for most people occurs in roughly half of our waking moments. Periods of mind-wandering are associated with lower levels of happiness, and frequent mind-wandering is also associated with a number of psychiatric conditions such as depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Can you train your mind to wander less? As recently as 1990 most neuroscientists did not believe in the ability of our brains to change beyond the childhood years. But modern scanning techniques have shown that the brain remains plastic and able to change throughout adulthood. Studies like this one, using brain scanning and mapping, confirm that even as adults, we have the ability to change our brain patterns and associated emotions by learning and practicing contemplative and cognitive behavioral techniques. This study supports the benefits of contemplative practices such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Tibetan Buddhism, Vipassana Yoga, and Zen Buddhism.
Learning mindfulness and meditation techniques can help us minimize stressful mind-wandering and cultivate emotional wellness and happiness. In the coming years further studies of how adult brains are able to change will help us better understand what’s involved in emotional well being and promote better mental health for everyone.
Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity.
[Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences]
—Joseph Mosquera, M.D.