She no longer has to work nearly as hard as she once did, she said, to reach a meditative state. And, she said, it’s much easier than it once was to keep intrusive thoughts and daydreams at bay while she meditated. “I don’t know why,” she concluded, with some wonder in her voice.
Coincidentally, I’d just spent much of the day reading about this very thing, in order to write this post.
People who study the brain talk about something called the default-mode network (DMN), which is where our brain tends to go when we’re not making it do something else. The DMN correlates with the parts of the brain that activate when we’re thinking about ourselves—the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices, if you want to get technical about it.
And our DMN does not always have our best interests at heart.
The default activity that our brains resort to is usually what researchers call daydreaming, what I’d call thinking. (What’s the difference between daydreaming and thinking?)
One study indicates that the more we think about something other than what we’re doing at the moment, the less happy we feel.* And it doesn’t matter if we’re thinking happy, sad, or neutral thoughts; we feel less happy daydreaming than when we are present in the moment. Sigh. Some of us are used to being smacked down in arguments by the other person saying “You think too much.” As much as I’d like to get huffy about that, in some cases, it’s true.
Another study suggests that fantasizing a wonderful future saps our energy for actually doing what it takes to reach our goals. It’s almost as if we get enough satisfaction from the fantasy, which diminishes any pressing need to act on our ambitions. (This makes me think about research I once heard about which found that when pianists imagine practicing the piano, their brain activity looks the same as when they actually are practicing.)
We need to stop letting our DMN take charge of our brains. But it’s strong. As much as we might want to stop thinking for a bit, if we don’t keep a tight rein on our brain, the DMN takes it right back into its ruts, be they positive fantasizing or worried rumination. Keeping our DMN from wresting control of our minds is what mindfulness is about.
And that’s what a new study out of Yale looked at in order to figure out what’s going on in our neurons when we meditate. In this small study, researchers used functional MRIs to look at the brains of people experienced and inexperienced in meditation while they meditated, using three different meditation techniques.
The researchers found that activity in the DMN parts of the brain wasn’t as robust in the experienced meditators as the inexperienced. In addition, the parts of the brain involved in self monitoring and cognitive control were more active in the experienced meditators both while they were meditating, and when they weren’t.
While there’s no telling what the experienced meditators brains looked like before they took up meditation, it seems possible, if not probable, that you can actually loosen the grip of your DMN by practicing meditation. That’s why my yoga teacher is having an easier time of meditating than she once did, and a much easier time of it than I do.
All this is so interesting to me, I couldn’t stop thinking about it in class last night. Actually, I wrote much of this blog post in my head while I was trying to meditate. My DMN is still in charge.
* The data for the study was collected using an iPhone app that contacts volunteers at random moments during waking hours and asks them a bunch of questions about what they’re doing, what they’re thinking about, and how they’re feeling. The data collection is ongoing, so if you have an iPhone, you can add your data by downloading the app here.