Your Brain on Meditation: Motivation to keep on doing it!
Decreased activation of the “wandering thoughts” regions of the brain, © Yale University
One of our MBCT students sent us a podcast from a recent CBC Quirks and Quarks interview with the medical director of Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience. Dr. Judson Brewer was interested in exploring what goes on in the brain of meditators. To do this, he measured brain activity in people practicing meditation for the first time and compared it with that of experienced meditators. What he found has very positive implications for those of us who suffer from anxiety and/or depression.
According to the Yale research team, brain scans of experienced meditators showed a deactivation of the “default mode network” in the brain, an area responsible for mind wandering and self-referential processing (thinking about ourselves.) Previous recent research has shown that less day dreaming is associated with increased happiness levels, no matter what you’re daydreaming about!
Brewer notes that an activated default mode network is implicated in ADHD, Alzheimer’s and in “a host of psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety and addiction.” What I found fascinating is that even when this area of the brain isactivated, experienced meditators show a co-activation in areas of self-monitoring and cognitive control that is NOT found in the novices.
The researchers suggest that the experienced meditators may be constantly monitoring “me” thoughts or mind wandering in general, states that in pathological forms are linked to autism and schizophrenia. Interestingly, the meditators did this both while meditating and while at rest. Brewer suggests that meditators may have developed a “new” default mode in which there is more present-centered awareness and less self-centeredness.
“Meditation’s ability to help people stay in the moment has been part of philosophical and contemplative practices for thousands of years,” Brewer said. “Conversely, the hallmark of many forms of mental illness is a preoccupation with one’s own thoughts, a condition meditation seems to affect. This gives us some nice cues as to the neural mechanisms of how it might be working clinically.”
Brewer jokes that his own motivation to meditate was “to be less of a jerk.” And the student who e-mailed me this interview wrote, “It hasn’t cured me of anxiety, but I’m convinced it helps me a lot to quiet my mind, and deal with anxiety and disturbing thoughts.”
Taking your Practice to the Next Level:
MBSR II for Working with Difficult Mind States and Emotions
So, you have some practice with quieting the mind and with being able to bring yourself into the moment more than you used to. And aligning your attention with just this moment’s experience is what brings more spaciousness to the mind and ease to the body.
But what to do when our minds are stuck on that one thought, over and over? Or when we are feeling deeply hurt? How do we deal with the sadness we feel in the face of great loss? Or when our anger or fear threatens to overwhelm?
It’s so much easier to meditate when things are going the way we like them to be, or when we are in a peaceful environment! Yet anger, loneliness, anxiety, loss and pain are the stuff of life, and most of us have not had much instruction in handling these skillfully.
MBSR II is an eight-week course that addresses these challenging states in depth , encouraging a curious and compassionate stance toward ourselves as we explore the insistent visitors of mind and body. Of course, regular meditation practice is an essential part of the process. Nothing makes for more powerful motivation than experiencing, however briefly at first, moments free of emotional torment.
Current scientific research is reflecting what many have known for millennia. Meditation is powerful… and it can significantly improve your quality of life.
You can learn more about the MBSR II course on the Course Descriptions page.
Thanks & be well,
Marian & Brett