Our brains do a lot of chattering without our permission. When left to its own devices, the mind tends to ad lib for extended periods, and the reality of this is that much of the chatter is negative, usually revolving around fear and worry-based thoughts. People have been writing about the “mind chatter” (or monkey mind) for many centuries, and this near-universal tendency is one that meditation has been shown to address robustly. Brain studies have found, among other things, that meditation can deactivate the area of the brain that’s thought to be responsible for mind chatter—the default mode network (DMN). And now, new research shows that mindfulness meditation actually reduces the subjective experience of intrusive thoughts popping into your head.
The study, from University of Southampton, assigned 77 people to one of three groups, and briefly instructed them on different types of meditation/mindfulness. One group learned focused attention (FA) meditation, which as the name suggests teaches one to focus one’s attention, and is considered the type of meditation that one should learn first. (Usually the “item” of focus is the breath, but sometimes a physical object or a mantra is used.) In this study, directions included phrases like, “Become aware of the sensation of breathing…noticing where in the body the physical sensations of breathing are vivid for you, right now…choosing one place to follow the breath… And each time you notice your attention has wandered, gently bringing your attention back to the breath and the sensations in your body…”
A second group learned the more advanced open monitoring (OM) form of meditation (often called mindfulness meditation), in which one curiously and non-judgmentally observes one’s own thoughts. Instructions included: “Direct your attention inwardly…notice thoughts, emotions, physical sensations… Each time you become aware of a private experience, such as a thought, or a feeling…turning your attention towards it, acknowledging it, maybe labeling it…and as best you can, letting things be as they are…making space for your experiences.”
And in a control group, people learned a kind of mindfulness that’s largely rooted in attention to one’s muscles and learning how to relax them (progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR).
What was interesting was how the frequency of intrusive thoughts was tested. The team had people conjure up a personal fear of theirs and think about it for five minutes. On either side of this time, they were asked to breathe, and to tell the experimenter at certain intervals whether their thoughts were negative, positive or neutral. As you’d imagine, participants’ negative thoughts rose considerably in the period after they thought about their fears. But it differed depending on what they’d been trained in.
People who’d learned OM had a significantly reduced amount of intrusive negative thoughts—more than either of the other two groups. Those who’d learned FA meditation also had fewer intrusive thoughts, but the difference wasn’t as great as it was with the OM group. The muscle relaxation group also improved, but the least of the three.
The research is noteworthy since it confirms what past studies have found happens in the brain as a result of a new meditation practice. One study from Yale in 2011 found that mindfulness was linked to reduced activity in the DMN (the area that’s linked to mind-wandering, worry thoughts and mind chatter) and altered connections between the DMN and other areas of the brain. Another body of work has illuminated the effectiveness of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) for depression, and for reducing the risk of relapse.
And other studies, like this one from Harvard, have confirmed that meditation not only reduces activity but also affects the volume of the brain in certain regions—for instance, reducing volume in the amygdala, the seat of anxiety, fear and emotion. And more recent work from the same team has found that increases in volume in other areas—those associated with mood and arousal—are linked with more subjective well-being in the participants. That is, they report feeling better and being happier after taking a meditation course.
So it turns out that meditation does exactly what it’s been said to do for thousands of years. As more research rolls in, more of its benefits may be illustrated. In the meantime, it’s probably worth giving a try—especially for those of us who have trouble quieting the ongoing commentary in our heads.
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