Updated: Feb 12, 2022
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.
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.
The researchers then analysed brain activity underlying the different states of meditation. As found in past studies, mind wandering was associated with activation in the default mode network. On the other hand, sub components of task positive neuronal network were activated when a person became aware of their mind wandering and made the shift in their attention back to the breath.
Becoming aware that the mind has wandered
This was associated with activation of brain regions in the salience network (i.e., anterior insula and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex). These brain areas call our attention to information in the environment or, in this case, information in a thought. So here activation of the salience network alerts the practitioner that their thoughts have drifted away from the breath.
Shifting from spontaneous thought to focused attention
This was underpinned by activation of brain regions within the executive network (i.e., lateral prefrontal cortex, lateral inferior parietal cortex). Activity in this network is initiated by information provided by the salience network, it disengages a particular thought pattern and reorientates attention back to the task at hand.
Here a region of the executive network remained active (i.e., the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex). It’s thought that this represents persistent brain activity underlying working memory, or keeping a goal in mind.
Model of the dynamic mind states during focused attention meditation
Effect of meditation experience
There was an effect of meditation experience on brain activity, the greatest of which was during the shifting phase. Meditation experience reduced the amount of time it took to decrease activity in the default mode network, as well as the amount of neural activation required to shift attention back to the breath. Its became easier to refocus.
The authors suggested that part of this finding is due to reduced self-evaluation that goes along with meditation experience. Specifically, people who are learning to meditate are often quite self-critical when they realised their mind has wandered (e.g., “I’m not good at this, I can't do this”). This would prolong activity in the default mode network and increase the effort it takes to re-focus. While increased meditation experience simply results in non-judgmental awareness and simple acceptance that it happened.
One of my meditation teachers told me- as soon as you realise that your mind has wandered you’re already back (see the above figure). So there really is no need for the critical self-judgment because you are actually now in a state of awareness.
Beyond the self-criticisms theory behind the results, I do wonder if meditation practice strengthens neural pathways associated with refocusing. This is a form of synaptic plasticity or more specifically learning. Like anything, the more we do it the easier it becomes.
Overall, this study shows that as we meditate our minds fluctuate through a number of states, this is completely normal. It seems that with experience we may learn to accept the spontaneous wandering nature of the mind, which ultimately facilities the transition back towards focused attention and meditative awareness.
Learning to observe and accept that natural nature of the mind means that ultimately we can become less critical of ourselves. The result is likely a general increase in happiness.
About the Author
Dr Kathie Overeem works one-on-one and in group sessions with people who wish to experience the healing and transformational effect of yoga. She works with clients that have experienced stress, anxiety, complex trauma, PTSD, eating disorders, complex mental illness, and people in alcohol and other drug rehabilitation. Classes are offered online and in person.
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Hasenkamp W, Wilson-Mednanhall CD, Duncan E, et al. Mind wandering and attention during focused meditation: A fine-grained temporal analysis of fluctuating cognitive states. Neuroimage 2012;59:750-60.