Experienced meditators appear to switch off areas of the brain associated with daydreaming and psychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.
Less daydreaming is associated with increased happiness levels, says Judson A. Brewer, assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University, who believes understanding how meditation works may aid investigations into a host of diseases:
“Meditation has been shown to help in variety of health problems, such as helping people quit smoking, cope with cancer, and even prevent psoriasis.”
For the study, researchers conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging scans on both experienced and novice meditators as they practiced three different meditation techniques.
Decreased Default Mode Activity
Experienced meditators had decreased activity in areas of the brain called the default mode network, which has been implicated in lapses of attention and disorders such as anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and even the buildup of beta amyloid plaques in Alzheimer’s disease.
The decrease in activity in this network, consisting of the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortex, was seen in experienced meditators regardless of the type of meditation they were doing.
The scans also showed that when the default mode network was active, brain regions associated with self-monitoring and cognitive control were co-activated in experienced meditators but not novices, possibly indicating that meditators are constantly monitoring and suppressing the emergence of “me” thoughts, or mind-wandering.
In pathological forms, these states are associated with diseases such as autism and schizophrenia.
The meditators did this both during meditation, and also when just resting, not being told to do anything in particular. This may indicate that meditators have developed a new default mode in which there is more present-centered awareness, and less centered on self, say the researchers:
“Meditation’s ability to help people stay in the moment has been part of philosophical and contemplative practices for thousands of years.
Conversely, the hallmarks of many forms of mental illness is a preoccupation with one’s own thoughts, a condition meditation seems to affect. This gives us some nice cues as to the neural mechanisms of how it might be working clinically.”
Judson A. Brewer, Patrick D. Worhunsky, Jeremy R. Gray, Yi-Yuan Tang, Jochen Weber, and Hedy Kober
Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity
PNAS December 13, 2011 vol. 108 no. 50 20254-20259 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1112029108