The Bright Side of a Restless Meditation Mind

By: Traci Pedersen

Do you have trouble staying completely focused during meditation? Do your thoughts tend to wander? New research, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience , says this is OK and that a specific type of mind-wandering meditation actually helps your brain process emotional experiences, leading to better stress management and wellness. 

Researchers in Norway and Australia (Norwegian University of Science and Technology, University of Oslo and University of Sydney) have been conducting research to determine how the brain responds during different types of meditation.

They have categorized meditation into two basic types: concentrative—in which the meditating person only focuses attention on breathing or on a specific thought (while suppressing other thoughts); and nondirective—in which the individual effortlessly focuses on breathing or a meditation sound, but beyond that, it is OK for the mind to wander.

For the study, researchers recruited fourteen individuals with extensive experience in a Norwegian style of nondirective meditation called Acem. As the subjects lay in an MRI machine, they were asked to participate in both nondirective meditation and concentrative meditation.

According to the MRI findings, nondirective meditation resulted in stronger activity in the part of the brain that processes self-related thoughts and feelings, compared to those in a resting state. When participants took part in concentrative meditation, the activity in this part of the brain was similar to those in a resting state.

The researchers were surprised that brain activity was greatest during the wandering-thought meditation instead of during concentrative meditation—when the brain had to work so hard at being focused. 

Apparently, nondirective meditation allows the brain ‘more space’ to process memories and emotions, compared to concentrated meditation, said the researchers. Since this area of the brain tends to peak in activity when a person is at rest, the researchers found it remarkable that nondirective meditation resulted in even higher activity than regular rest.

So don’t be so hard on yourself if you have trouble staying completely focused during meditation. Nondirective meditation—which permits some mind wandering—results in stronger activation of certain brain areas responsible for processing memories and emotions. You may end up feeling more relaxed in the end.

 

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