How the mind fluctuates during meditation

Updated: May 23, 2020

A team of researchers in Atlanta examined fluctuations in mind states during a focused attention style of meditation practice. They found that during practice our brain fluctuates between states of attention and mind wandering. With time we become faster at re-orientating our attention when we notice that our minds have wandered...

The participants were 14 meditation practitioners (age 28-66) with on average of 1,386 hours of lifetime meditation practice and a control cohort. They were asked to meditate in an fMRI machine so that their brain activity could be measured.

The Task

They were required to focus completely on the breath for 20 minutes, when their mind wandered they were asked to bring their attention back to the breath. In addition, they were required to push a button on a remote. The researchers could then look back at the fMRI data and determine the time points when the practitioners minds had wandered (3 seconds before the button press), started to shift attention (3 seconds post button press), and then become engaged in focused attention (3 seconds post shifting).

For their first analysis the researchers examined the number of times the participants pressed the button during the meditation session. The average for was 15.5, that’s about one report of mind wandering every 80 seconds. This result was not affected by meditation experience.

This result surprised me. I've always imagined that with increased meditation practice a person could sit for longer in states of meditative awareness. In this group or people, however, that wasn't the case. Both experienced meditators and novices reported the same amount of mind wandering.