Meditation is no longer the province of Buddhist monks and martial arts masters. The Western world has embraced meditation as a treatment for depression and a range of physical problems from high blood pressure to cancer. Regular meditators have been shown to be happier and now new research has shown exactly what is happening in the brains and thoughts of those who practice meditation.
Yale University researchers used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to measure activity in the brains of both novice meditators and experienced meditators as the engaged three different forms of meditation.
As a preface to understanding the findings, it helps to know that there is a part of your brain that includes the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortex which is involved in lapses of attention. It is the part of the brain that runs the â€œdefault modeâ€ of your mind, to use computer-speak. This area of the brain is also involved in conditions like ADHD, anxiety, and Alzheimerâ€™s Disease.
The results of the study found that in the brains of experienced meditators, the practice of any of the three meditation types switched off activity in the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulated cortex. This means that during meditation experienced mediators do not â€œzone outâ€ or slip into default mode but remain acutely aware. The research also found that even when the default mode area of the brain was active for experienced meditators, other parts of the brain involved in self-monitoring and cognitive control were active at the same time. This was not the case for people who were new to meditating.
These results might arise from meditators having trained themselves to monitor mind-wandering and suppress â€œmeâ€ thoughts.
Perhaps the most interesting finding came when the researchers measured activity in the brains of regular meditators when they were not meditating but when they were resting or had been given a task. For these people brain patterns of activity were the same when meditating as when doing anything else. This suggests that the benefit of meditation is not localised to the meditation itself but permeates to the whole of life as a result of reprogramming your brain. The Yale researchers speculated that regular meditators develop a new default mode of the brain that is centred less on the self and more on the present.
At this time of year it is easy to become embroiled in a lot of â€œmeâ€ thinking. What did I get for Christmas? Did I have a good time? What will my new yearâ€™s resolution be? What will 2012 bring me? Maybe this is precisely the time when some meditation is needed; bring those nagging â€œmeâ€ thoughts some stillness and discover the gift of the present, as opposed to the gift of presents.