Happy Friday, friends. Are you thanking God, or whatever poly-denominational-all-inclusive-unitarian-universalist-gluten-free deity that you choose to worship, that the weekend is right around the corner?
I’m certainly looking forward to a weekend away from manuscript preparation. I’ve been writing up (and re-writing) my results for publication. Somehow each iteration of the draft leads me down another series of experiments investigating an additional pathway. If someone doesn’t reign us in soon we wont publish anything until we have attempted to explain the source of every single mutation that ever happened in the B. subtilis genome.
I could not have picked a more perfect time to start my Serene September daily meditation challenge. I truly believe that finding five minutes per day of mindfulness is keeping me mentally balanced in the face of frustration.I’ve been incorporating body-scanning based mindfulness mediation into my running warm up. My eight-miler this morning was delightful from start-to-finish: no negative self-talk, just a relaxing hour-long run where the miles and minutes flew by!
I’m already feeling some positive impacts, so I wanted to write a blog post today digging a little more deeply into the brain science supporting the benefits of meditation. I’ll lay it out on the table right now: neuroscience is NOT my forte. Bacteria don’t have brains.
However, I’ve got access to PubMed and an institutional subscription to some solid journals, so I’ll try to highlight some of the cool research into what happens in our minds when we meditate. The inspiration for this post comes from an episode of the “Stuff to Blow Your Mind” podcast covering research into hallucinogens and human experience. It turns out that deep meditation and psychedelic compounds, two powerful tools for expanding your perception, have physiologically similar impacts on brain activity.This is NOT to suggest that meditation facilitates a trip into “Fear and Loathing” territory. Our dear hero Hunter S. Thompson consumed COPIOUS quantities of a combination of compounds before he started seeing dinosaurs diving out of the walls: you average meditator or mushroom day-tripper will never experience altered consciousness to the gonzo-degree.
In fact, hallucinogens are incidental to the point I am pursuing today. I bring them up only because researchers have recently begun appreciating these compounds’ power as a tool to induce an altered state of consciousness. Scientists can use powerful brain-imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, or positron emission tomography to monitor the activity of different brain regions in both resting and altered states of mind (such as those brought on by meditation…or mushrooms)
Human beings spend approximately half their time daydreaming. A 2010 study revealed that, on average, adults spend 47% of their time letting their minds wander: contemplating and ruminating about things that aren’t actually happening. We spend half of our waking hours planning what we’ll do next, or recalling what we just did. Strikingly, this study found that these idle thoughts served to make people less happy than when they were actively engaged and focused on the task at hand. The group also found that adults only daydream 30% of the time while they are having sex, but that’s a topic for an entirely different blog post.
Our minds are constantly wandering: fixated on the way things AREN’T. This makes it difficult to appreciate the moment where we ARE. Detaching and daydreaming is making us miserable. Our brains can be our own worst enemies, and thanks to some amazing studies we know what part of the brain is responsible for this self-sabotaging behavior.
Different regions of the brain appear to be responsible for different types of thinking (or, rather: researchers can detect increased activity in particular areas when they scan the brains of people performing a particular task…correlation is not causation, always take a study with a grain of salt). The regions of your brain that light up when you are idly thinking about nothing in particular is called the “Default Mode Network.”
The default mode network is also responsible for our perception of ourselves: it’s the part of your brain that tells you your story, the little narrator inside your head that just wont shut up. Listening to the narrator inside your head distracts you from your current surroundings: have you ever wandered into a grocery store while you were distracted, then realized one hour and one hundred dollars later that you cant remember any specific details of your shopping excursion?
When you devote all of your attention to a particular task, and you are personally motivated to perform the task well for its own sake, your brain does you a favor by dampening down the default mode network. Your brain diverts blood-flow away from this region: idle daydreaming won’t help you complete the activity at hand. The psychologist Mihaly Csikzentzmihalyi describes the mental state when a person is completely focused, fully involved, and enjoying themselves as “flow.” (Here’s a link to his awesome TED talk). People find flow performing activities that are complex and challenging, yet personally rewarding: playing music, creating art, cooking, and running long distances all induce the flow state.When you are in the flow state, you become hyperaware. Time loses meaning, not because you are checked out and daydreaming, but because you are devoting all of your mental energy to what you are doing RIGHT NOW, instead of daydreaming about what you did yesterday.
Meditation effects the same changes in blood flow to the default mode network as intense concentration and focus. Interestingly, hallucinogenic compounds also reduce blood-flow to this region. In other words: meditation and psychadelics don’t enhance your perception by ACTIVATING an area in your brain, instead they simply remove some of the self imposed barriers we set up in our own minds to becoming fully engaged in the present moment. Meditation lets you turn off the self-limiting little voice inside your head and open your perception to a higher place.
However, the benefits of meditation extend beyond the yoga mat (or wherever you choose to repeat your mantra). Other studies have demonstrated that experienced meditators have altered connectivity patterns, and decreased blood flow in their default mode networks during a resting (non-medidtative) state. I mentioned in my previous post that meditators display improved performance on tasks that require a high degree of attention. Taken together this suggests that the positive neural patterns established during a meditation practice may be carried with you into your daily life.
I hope you enjoyed my little dabbling into neuroscience. If I’ve totally mis-interpreted something, please let me know! I’m also interested to hear from all meditators out there on the internet (long-term or newbies):
Have you noticed a difference in your thoughts, focus, or attention associated with your practice?
What are you up to this weekend? Will you find your flow?