Mapping the Mindful Brain

Very briefly, came upon some fascinating work by Judson Brewer, MD, interviewed here, at Buddhist Geeks. Dr. Brewer, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale is studying the effects of meditation on the brain.

The research, utilizing fMRI brain scanning, finds that meditating deactivates the parts of the brain associated with preoccupation with self, called the “default mode network”. Now, if you could limit the activity of the part of the brain that tended to make people unhappy, would you?

We found a clinical signal and went back to study the mechanism to see what’s actually going on. We compared the neural activity of 12 Buddhist meditators to those of novice meditators that we instructed that morning. As I’m sure your listeners are aware, the instructions are simple “pay attention to your breath” but they are maddeningly hard to do. It’s easy to teach someone, but it’s not that easy to change your brain. We had them do three different kinds of meditation and looked for what was similar among all three.

The researchers found that not only is there a common neurological association to meditation, but using fMRI scans to provide real-time feedback with meditators showed that “an active posterior cingulate correllated very highly with self-referential wandering brain activity” and when it was de-activated they were focussed or in a “flow” state.

So, what of it? Well, not long ago another study, done by Matthew Killingsworth, looked at the effect of the wandering mind. They concluded that about half the time we are thinking about ourselves, and when doing so we are generally unhappy. (Here’s a write-up of that research in Science Daily.)

So could you increase your odds of happiness by taking up a mindfulness practice — by taking that preoccupied self “off-line”, so to speak? There’s lots more research to be done, but it seems to point in that direction. One interesting thing about Brewer’s work, is his team is providing real-time feedback to meditators so that they are able to learn to meditate more efficiently. They had people who learned to meditate, whose meditation looked like those of longtime practitioners, within 9 minutes. (I’m not suggesting that this is a fast-track to learning to meditate like a long-time practitioner, but it does seem to make the learning much more efficient.)

You can also read an article about Brewer’s research at Yale Scientific.

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