“meditation may increase our control over our limited brain resources. To anyone who knows what it’s like to feel scattered or overwhelmed, this is an appealing benefit indeed. Even though your attention is a limited resource, you can learn to do more with the mental energy you already have.” – Kelly McGonigal
Meditation practice has many psychological, cognitive, and physical benefits. It has been shown to improve attentional abilities so that we can better maintain our attention when needed and reduce the strong human tendency for mind wandering (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/category/research-news/attention/), the enemy of focused attention. This allows us to better attend to the present moment, what’s happening now, rather than be dominated by thought, memories, and plans for the future.
In the last few decades, scientists have discovered that the brain is far more malleable than previously thought. Areas in the brain can change, either increase or decrease in size, connectivity, and activity in response to changes in our environment or the behaviors we engage in. This process is referred to as neuroplasticity. Alterations in the brain can be produced by contemplative practices. The brain appears to change in response to meditation and other contemplative practices. Indeed, mindfulness practices have been shown to not only alter how we think and feel but also to alter the nervous system (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/category/research-news/neuroplasticity/).
In today’s Research News article “Increases in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and decreases the rostral prefrontal cortex activation after-8 weeks of focused attention based mindfulness meditation”
Tomasino and colleagues investigate neuroplastic changes to the brain when individuals who have no experience with meditation engage in an 8-week meditation program. The participants’ brain activity during meditation was measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging (f-MRI) before and after the meditation training. They found that at the end of training the participants showed greater activation of the right middle frontal gyrus and the left caudate/anterior insular cortex. They also found that the practice decreased activation in the rostral prefrontal cortex and in right parietal cortex. They further demonstrated that these altered brain activities were produced by the focused meditation component and not a body scan component of the practice.
The increased activity observed in the prefrontal areas makes perfect sense as meditation is an attentional practice and the prefrontal areas have been previously shown to be associated with attention. So, practicing attention alters the brain areas responsible for attention. The decreased activity observed in the rostral prefrontal cortex also makes perfect sense as focused attention is antithetical to mind wandering and the rostral prefrontal cortex has been shown to be involved in the “default mode network” that is activated during mind wandering. So, practicing attention also decreases activity in the brain areas responsible for its opposite, mind wandering. So, meditation practice was found to strengthen the activity of the exact areas of the brain that are known to be increased by attentional activity and reduced activity of the areas known to be increased during mind wandering.
Hence, meditation practice by naive individuals appears to alter their brains to better maintain attention and restrain mind wandering. The fact that the brain has been changes suggests that the improved attentional ability will be maintained even when the individuals are not actively meditating. This make the practice far more useful as it has more long-lasting effects.
So, meditate to improve attention by changing the brain.
“Meditation provides experiences that the mind can achieve no other way, such as inner silence and expanded awareness. And as the mind gains experience, the brain shows physical activity as well—sometimes profound changes. . . . the research has begun to show that meditation can also produce long-term structural changes in the brain. No longer is the “hard wiring” of neural circuits so dominant. The brain can alter its wiring in “soft” ways, thanks to a trait known as neuroplasticity, which allows new pathways and even new brain cells to appear.” – Deepak Chopra
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies