Nov. 22, 2011 -- Sharon Salzberg said her mind might be very different if it weren't for meditation, and new neurologic research suggests that she might be right.
Troubled by a traumatic, stressful childhood, Salzberg traveled to India as a college student and discovered meditation. Not only did it help her deal with her painful past, Salzberg said, but the practice helped change the way her mind worked.
"I hadn't really looked within," said Salzberg, a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and author of seven books on meditation. "I felt much more presence, rather than being distracted. It felt like the whole world opened up for me."
A new study from Yale University suggests that the brains of experienced meditators like Salzberg may actually work differently than brains of those who don't meditate. The study gives scientists a window into the meditating mind, providing evidence that the practice appears to change the way the brain works and could give meditators a leg up when it comes to dealing with mental disorders.
Dr. Judson Brewer, medical director of the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic, and his colleagues asked 10 experienced meditators and 13 people with no meditation experience to practice three basic meditation techniques: concentration, loving-kindness, and choiceless awareness.
The team then used functional magnetic resonance imaging to observe the participants' brain activity when they were practicing the meditative techniques and when they were instructed not to think of anything in particular.
In a report published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Brewer and his team report that the experienced meditators had decreased activity in an area of the brain called the default mode network, a region that is usually at work when the mind wanders. Even when the meditators weren't meditating, this region of their brain was much quieter than in their inexperienced counterparts.
Brewer, who has practiced meditation for 15 years, said experience with meditation also seems to optimize the way the brain communicates with itself. When the default mode networks of the experienced meditators were active, so were brain regions associated with self-monitoring and cognitive control.
"These guys have a different default mode," Brewer said. "They're constantly looking out for mind wandering."
Most people spend a lot of time in mind wandering or daydreaming, and research shows that it comes with cognitive pros and cons. Scientists have shown that daydreaming can be a good thing, providing a boost for creativity, aiding in the processing of social functions, and refining other important psychological processes.
However, recent studies have suggested that a wandering mind is also an unhappy one. In 2010, one study found that people reported being significantly less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were engaged in the task at hand. Researchers suggest that this is because when our minds are wandering, most of us are worrying rather than living in the moment.
Brewer also notes that the psychological hallmark of many forms of mental illness -- anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia -- is a preoccupation with one's own thoughts, specifically the negative ones. A series of studies have linked these disorders with overactivity or faulty neurological wiring in the default mode network, the brain region that was less active in experienced meditators.
"One of the things that meditation and basic mindfulness seems to be doing is quieting down this region of the brain," Brewer said. "It absolutely makes sense, given what we know about the default mode network."
Meditation isn't a cure for mental illness, Brewer said, but he said his study suggests that there may be a neurological basis for the benefits that many meditators report -- increased awareness, improved concentration, and a better ability to deal with the cognitive and emotional stresses of modern life.
Salzberg said she hopes that increased scientific study will continue to document the benefits of meditation for easing a troubled mind.
"It's quite great that in our contemporary time where science is the language of validation, there's evidence showing that in fact this is true," Salzberg said.