How Meditation Benefits The Brain
23 Nov 2011
A new brain imaging study led by researchers
at Yale University shows how people who regularly
practise meditation are able to switch off areas
of the brain linked to daydreaming, anxiety,
schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders.
The brains of experienced meditators appear to
show less activity in an area known as the
"default mode network", which is linked to
largely self-centred thinking. The researchers
suggest through monitoring and suppressing or
"tuning out" the "me" thoughts, meditators develop
a new default mode, which is more present-centred.
A report of their findings is due to be published
online this week in the Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences.
Meditation can help deal with a variety of health
problems, from quitting smoking, to coping with
cancer, and even preventing psoriasis, one of the
researchers said in a statement. For this study,
they wanted to look further into the neurological
mechanisms that might be involved.
Lead author Judson A. Brewer, assistant professor
of psychiatry at Yale, and colleagues, used fMRI
(functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans to
observe the brains of both novice and experienced
meditators as they practised three different forms
They found that the experienced meditators, regardless
of the type of meditation they practised, seemed
able to switch off the default mode network, which
has been linked to lapses of attention, and disorders
such as attention deficit and hyperactivity
disorder (ADHD), and anxiety. This part of the
brain, comprising the medial prefrontal and
posterior cingulate cortex, has also been linked
to the accumulation of beta amyloid plaques in
They also found that when the default mode network
was active in the experienced meditators, other parts
of the brain, associated with self-monitoring and
cognitive control, were active at the same time. This
was not the case with the novices.
This could be the result of meditators constantly
monitoring mind-wandering and the emergence of "me"
thoughts, and suppressing them. These are the kind
of thoughts, when in extreme or pathological form,
are associated with diseases such as autism and
The fMRI scans showed the experienced meditators'
brain activity was the same both during meditation
and when they were just resting, or when they were
not being told to do anything in particular.
Thus the researchers concluded that perhaps experienced
meditators have developed a new default mode, which
is centred more on the present than on the self.
Meditation has been a central part of philosophical
and contemplative practices for thousands of years:
it helps the practitioner to be mindful of the
present moment, Brewer told the press, and studies
have shown it is also linked to increased levels
"Conversely, the hallmarks of many forms of mental
illness is a preoccupation with one's own thoughts,
a condition meditation seems to affect," he added.
This study appears to have uncovered some clues as
to the neural mechanisms that underpin this process.
Understanding more about them will hopefully help
us investigate a host of diseases, said Brewer.
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