The rising popularity of meditation in the Western world has produced some very interesting scientific research. Many different studies have been done, and many different benefits have been found from a regular practice of this ancient technique. When you combine the scientifically proven benefits with the subjective and personally reported benefits that have been reported over the history of the human race, the list could fill several pages.
It is very good to keep in mind that even though we are increasing our scientific research on this fascinating subject, there are also always going to be facets of the results one reaches through meditation that cannot be scientifically proven. At least until science learns to somehow measure and observe consciousness itself. This is such a subjective and personal practice that cuts to the very depth of our spiritual nature and identity.
I suppose I am throwing that in there to help keep this article in perspective. Yes, we have found that, scientifically, meditation literally produces beneficial, measurable, physical changes to the brain and body. But I would have to personally assert that these beneficial effects are simply side effects, or “aftereffects” of the more powerful spiritual changes that occur from regular and disciplined meditation.
Thus being said, it is still absolutely fascinating what recent scientific research has shown can occur from this age-old practice.
I imagine that this will not be the last of articles on this particular subject. This one in particular revolves around a few different studies performed on Buddhist Monastics in the state of Wisconsin for the November issue of Scientific American magazine.
This study was particularly interesting to me, because it studied more than one type of meditation. Rather than lumping it all into one broad category, the researchers had the sensitivity to understand that there was a potential for different results from different practices.
The three types of meditation observed in this study were: focused attention, mindfulness, and compassion and loving kindness. Through the various experiments performed, it was found that all three of these meditative practices were shown to produce beneficial, tangible, physical and psychological changes in the brain and mind.
In this article we will focus on the research done on what was called “focused attention” meditation. The basic practice for this meditation is to direct one’s attention to the sensation of breathing, and to keep it focused without distraction. Inevitably even an experienced meditator will become distracted at a point, and will use their awareness to notice this distraction, and refocus their attention to the breath.
In one study of this meditation, the monks were hooked up to brain scanners, and were given a button to push during the moments they were distracted. Using this model, brain imaging technology was able to specifically identify what neural networks and areas of the brain were activated and affected during the various stages of the meditation.
At the moment of distraction (or at the beginning of the meditation) there was a great deal of activity in what is known as the default-mode network (DMN). This network includes areas of the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulated cortex, the precuneus, the inferior parietal lobe, and the lateral temporal cortex. This network of the brain is generally known for being active during mind wandering and daydreaming, and it also plays a role in updating and building one’s internal perception of the world, drawing upon long term memory about oneself or others.
In the moment that the meditator becomes aware of their distraction, activity in the brain begins to shift to the anterior insula and the anterior cingulated cortext, a network usually referred to as the “salience network”. The salience network is associated with the regulation and control of one’s perceptions of their own emotion, and has also been supposed to contribute to the detection of “novel” or “out of the norm” events in one’s experience. Under the context of this experience, these parts of the brain appear to play a role in switching the function of the brain away from the default mode network over to a new function, one of focused attention and awareness.
Once the distraction has been identified and the intention is then directed to bring one’s focus BACK to the breath, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the inferior parietal lobe appear to be the main areas that direct the attention back into focus.
In the final phase of the meditation, where the meditator is actually focused and free of distraction, the dorsolateral cortex remains active, and the rest of the above mentioned areas become inactive.
During this study it was found that meditators with more than 10,000 hours of practice showed more activity in these attention-related areas of the brain than novices, showing that the regular practice of this technique actually develops a greater capacity for the brain to use these different networks. At the same time, those with the most experience in the study actually showed less activity than all the rest of the participants, even while bringing their attention back to the breath from distraction.
This seemed to indicate that with practice, not only do these areas of the brain become more active, but that they also perform their functions more effortlessly with continued use.
What This Means
In a nutshell this study showed that regular practice of this technique developed the areas of the brain that lend the ability to focus and remain free of distraction. Those that meditated were able to produce greater activity in these areas, and were also shown through other tests to statistically have a heightened ability to remain vigilant to auditory feedback and stimuli in the midst of repetitive and “boring” activities. At the same time, however, it was shown that those in the group that performed the best in this test actually had LESS activity in these parts of brain function while using these particular neural nets, which suggests that with practice and experience, the ability to use these faculties of the brain becomes more and more effortless, requiring less energy and electrical activity to produce the desired effect.
In conclusion, this study shows that practicing focused attention does not just provide benefits during the meditation. It trains and reformats the function of the brain, enabling it to become more and more able to maintain and produce this focused attention, both in and out of meditation. I think we can all agree that this is a skill that we could all benefit from in one way or another.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this article series, where we will explore the research performed on what Buddhist tradition most commonly refers to as “mindfulness”.
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