How meditating may help your brain
November 21st, 2011
06:05 PM ET

How meditating may help your brain

When you're under pressure from work and family and the emails don't stop coming, it's hard to stop your mind from jumping all over the place.

But scientists are finding that it may be worth it to train your brain to focus on something as simple as your breath, which is part of mindfulness meditation.

A new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the latest in a hot emerging field of research examining how meditation relates to the brain. It shows that people who are experienced meditators show less activity in the brain's default mode network, when the brain is not engaged in focused thought.

The default mode network is associated with introspection and mind wandering. Typically, drifting thoughts tend to focus on negative subjects, creating more stress and anxiety. It has also been linked to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and Alzheimer's disease.

Researchers looked at experienced meditators and trained novices. There were 12 in the "experienced" category, with an average of more than 10,000 hours of mindfulness meditation experience (Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" suggests that it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert at something), and 12 healthy volunteers who were novices in meditation.

Each volunteer was instructed to engage in three types of meditation: concentration (attention to the breath), love-kindness (wishing beings well) and choiceless awareness (focus on whatever comes up). Scientists looked at their brain activity during these meditations with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Across all of these types of meditation, the experienced meditators showed less activity in the default mode network than in the novices. The experienced participants also reported less mind wandering than the novices. Interestingly, experienced meditators also showed increased connectivity between certain brain networks during meditation and non-meditation.

"It doesn't matter what they're doing, they have an altered default mode network," said Dr. Judson Brewer, medical director of the Yale University Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic and lead author of the study. "We were pretty excited about that, because it suggests that these guys are paying attention a lot more."

From this particular study, researchers can't say whether meditating is beneficial to the brain. But, viewed in conjunction with other studies showing the positive effects of mindfulness training for depression, substance abuse, anxiety and pain disorders, it seems to have promise. Also, a 2010 study found that people tend to be more unhappy when they their mind is wandering.

"Putting all those together, we might be able to start get at what the mechanisms of mindfulness are," Brewer said.

But the study does not address the issue of cause: Is meditation changing the brain, or do people who already have these brain patterns get interested in meditation?

"Emerging data from our group and others suggests that some things thought to be result of meditation might be cause of meditation," said Dr. Charles Raison, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

If some people are just better at keeping their minds from wandering, that would also be consistent with the Buddhist idea that your capabilities are the result of your Karmic path, so meditation may be better suited to some people than others, Raison said.

Someday, if brain scans become cheap enough, one day there might be a test to see who can benefit most from mindfulness training, Raison said.

In the meantime, scientists should explore these open questions by doing longitudinal studies, Raison said. That would involve assigning some people to meditate and some people to not meditate, and following the groups over time to see whether a change in brain activity patterns is visible.

soundoff (130 Responses)
  1. greg martin savetheworld.co

    PERFECT PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT. The perfect practice of meditation is very simple. Open up in a safe and healthy environment. This will change your mind. If you are dedicated and practice perfectly you can feel more alive than you have ever felt.

    Your mind will resist embarking on this endeavor, its natural to resist change. After reading these words its almost certain you will engage in behavior less than perfect in order to avoid changing your mind. You see, opening up requires working with feelings, and emotions. Scary stuff? No? Yes! Embrace those emotional knots inside!

    VITAL to any understanding is that all emotions, from highest to lowest, are there to help us. We naturally put emotions and feelings in a hierarchy with pride, euphoria, beauty, love, and compassion far higher in hierarchy then lower emotions such as anger, shame, and revulsion. However, emotions such as anger which are lower in the hierarchy might be of the highest value to you in a particular moment. In the blink of an eye, a different one is better.

    The challenge is opening up to achieve an underlying healthy perspective on life so that we naturally select the best emotion for the moment.

    Set time aside to change your mind. You will not just change your mind. You will change your world.


    November 23, 2011 at 10:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. BLeeK

    Is anyone proofreading these articles?

    November 23, 2011 at 14:37 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jim

      I had the same thought when I read the second to last paragraph.

      November 23, 2011 at 16:37 | Report abuse |
  3. Dub Riley

    Thank you for this resource. Sometimes people misunderstand words such as magic, psychic healing, astral projection and even commonly used words such as Spirit, Soul and meditation. I've found that when one learns to free the mind and wander in the great mystery of the "internal" that a teacher will present itself, if the student is tenacious and dedicated. I do unconventional healing guided meditation and have recently been posting techniques to help people heal from harmful emotions, especially grief. For the latest technique, please see


    This is a supercharger for the three bodies (mind/body and soul) and will cleanse the primary organs of toxic emotions

    February 5, 2012 at 20:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Mike

    You might want to read Daniel Goleman’s classic, The Meditative Mind: The Varieties of Meditative Experience. He explores the meditative practices in the world's major spiritual traditions and introduces the basic elements of their practice.
    He also examines the various meditative traditions through the lens of cognitive psychology to highlight the connections between the ancient and modern psychological sciences.

    February 15, 2012 at 11:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. mind power

    Hiya very nice site!! Guy .. Beautiful .. Amazing .. I'll bookmark your web site and take the feeds additionally?I am satisfied to find numerous helpful information here within the post, we'd like develop extra techniques in this regard, thanks for sharing. . . . . .

    June 4, 2012 at 17:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Auth

      Thanks Matt!I agree wholeheartedly with you we could be doing more in scoohls. Just stopping and focusing on breathing can help to connect with our bodies and then perhaps our emotions. I have found many men and adolescent boys feel emotionally disconnected when they present to counselling, their significant relationships are often on the verge of collapse! It seems they need to get back to themselves and inside their bodies first and then they can connect in awesome ways with their partners. I sometimes wonder if the use of substances have replaced simple relaxation, breathing and meditation techniques? Whenever I work with anyone giving up substances we explore what will be taken up, mindfulness' is the perfect thing it's free, easy and once someone gets over the fear of something new, can be very helpful.

      October 11, 2012 at 22:22 | Report abuse |
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  8. a j marr

    A Note on Resting States and Resting Brains

    A resting state, or ‘somatic rest’, would seem to correspond with a brain at rest or ‘neurologic’ rest, but by definition, somatic and neurologic rest are entirely different things. A resting ‘state’ or somatic rest represents the inactivity of the striatal musculature that results from the application of resting protocols (continual avoidance of perseverative thought represented by rumination, worry, and distraction.). Resting states also are affective states, as they elicit opioid activity in the brain. Resting states in turn may occur in tandem with all levels of non-perseverative thought that are passive or active, from just passively ‘being in the moment’ or being mindful, to actively engaging in complex and meaningful cognitive behavior. The latter cognitive behavior is also additionally affective in nature due to its elicitation of dopaminergic activity, and the resulting opioid-dopamine interaction results in a perceived state of ‘bliss’ or ‘flow’. On the other hand, a resting ‘brain’, neurologic rest, or the so-called ‘default mode network’ is a specific type of neural processing that occurs when the mind is in a ‘passive’ state, or in other words, is presented with no or very limited cognitive demands. This results in ‘mind wandering’ that can entail non-perseverative (creative thought) or perseverative thought (rumination, worry). As such a resting brain may or may not correlate with somatic rest, and is correlated with a level of demand, not a kind of demand, as in somatic rest.


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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.