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Research: How meditation (contemplation) calms the mind

Thumbnail for version as of 19:51, 4 May 2005

Theresa of Avila/David Monniaux

A recent article in Forbes offers some background:

Last year, a Harvard study confirmed that there’s a clear connection between mind wandering and unhappiness. Not only did the study find that if you’re awake, your mind is wandering almost half the time, it also found that this wandering is linked to a less happy state.

Another study found that mind wandering is linked to activation of network of brain cells called the default mode network (DMN), which is active not when we’re doing high-level processing, but when we’re drifting about in “self-referential” thoughts (read: when our brain is flitting from one life-worry to the next).

Because most of our have minds that wander to things that worry or annoy us or to things we crave, a key goal of meditation and contemplation is to acknowledge the thought, and not judge it but dismiss it. Until it becomes a habit. So, not surprisingly,

New research by Judson Brewer, MD, PhD and his group at Yale University has found that experienced meditators not only report less mind wandering during meditation, but actually have markedly decreased activity in their DMN. Earlier research had shown that meditators have less activity in regions governing thoughts about the self, like the medial prefrontal cortex: Brewer says that what’s likely going on in experienced meditators is that these “‘me’ centers of the brain are being deactivated.”

Of course the meditator is well aware that he or she exists, but focuses away from self-identified concerns, toward inner peace.

Interestingly, gratifying desires (giving in to the desire for a cigarette, for example) does not work nearly as well in the long term because

In addition to the pleasurable associations, smoking actually creates a negative feedback loop, where you are linking stress and craving with the oh-so-good act of smoking. So whenever you experience a negative emotion, craving returns and intensifies over time, so that you are actually even less happy than before. A cigarette may quiet the mind temporarily – during the act of smoking – but in between cigarettes is where things get bad, because craving creeps in. Though we’re using craving as the example, unhappiness, self-referential thoughts, or everyday worries can all be substituted in. More.

Mindfulness therapy assumes that, for practical purposes, you do have free will and can get control of troubling thought patterns or break cycles of addiction.

Theresa of Avila, pictured above, used to say that the solution to distraction during contemplation or religious services was to just accept it, dismiss it, and press on anyway, rather than let it become another source of worry.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

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4 Responses to Research: How meditation (contemplation) calms the mind

  1. It sounds a curious finding to me. I remember looking out of a classroom window, as a five year-old, watching a crane in a neighbouring wood yard, and feeling very much at peace.

    My teacher told my mother about it, but said that I always seemed to have taken in what was being taught; and I believe I read somewhere that that is the best state of mind for learning and processing information. Though learning what may be another matter.

    Any knowledge and understanding I possess seems to be of a very non-technical, ‘broad-brush’ nature, including among such ‘technical’ exclusions, material of a philosophical nature, at least closely argued. On the other hand, I remember wondering at the same age, what train of thoughts had led me to my current thoughts.

    I was interested in that kind of non-reflective meditation at one time, but probably lost interest in it, after lying on my bed for minute or two, one afternoon, trying to have an out-of-body experience, if I recall correctly, at least, tangentially associated with transcendental meditation.

    All of a sudden I felt my spirit shooting up to the ceiling, but the utter shock of it was such, that I returned post haste, without even bothering to turn round and look down on my body.

    Incidentally, It might have been interesting to have images of the light emanating from the faces of Mother Theresa and Padre Pio, recorded. The kind of images Philip posted yesterday, I think.

  2. Different forms of meditation have different effects that result from the different ways in which they work.

    Transcendental Meditation is described by TM-Founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi as a way of taking advantage of the tendency of the mind to wander, and the “deeper” the mind tends to wander, the more highly activated teh DMN tends to become. At the greatest degree of mind wandering, the mind has become completely silent and yet the outcome of this mind-wandering is Bliss -sat-chit-ananada.

    Studies on people with PTSD who are taught mindfulness or concentrative techniques such as the relaxation response show a slight improvement in their symptoms. People with PTSD who learn TM show drastic improvement in their symptoms within a few weeks, and are far happier than they were before learning, and yet their EEG and brain activation patterns are showing much more “mind wandering” characteristics than before.

  3. I also agree that cigarettes actually makes the smoker more anxious, rather than less, due to the resumption of the craving, after the initial satisfaction has worn off. Anticipation of the next cigarette starts to strain the nerves again. And mortification of earthly desires is acknowledged by all the mainstream religions as a desirable(!) goal for approaching the divine.

  4. That’s interesting, Denyse, thanks.

    DMN suppression is usually associated with attention to the outer, rather than the inner world, so it’s interesting that in experienced meditators, DMN suppression is decreased during meditation.

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