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Why You Should Let Your Mind Wander During Meditation

May 19, 2014
Sarah Klein

What gives you heightened concentration, more willpower, higher cognitive functioning, less stress and better sleep? The lengthy list of benefits to meditation for the mind is more than a little striking.

But there's still limited research on what exactly happens in the brain while meditating, and if any particular form of the soothing practice is best.

"No one knows how the brain works when you meditate," Jian Xu, a physician at St. Olav's Hospital in Trondheim, Norway and a researcher at the Department of Circulation and Medical Imaging at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) said in a statement recently. "That is why I'd like to study it."

Xu, along with a team of researchers from NTNU, the University of Oslo and the University of Sydney set about doing just that, in a small new study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. They administered MRI testing to 14 regular meditators and monitored their brain activity while resting, while meditating by focusing on a specific thought and also while meditating by focusing on the breath but allowing the mind to wander. This latter form of meditation, called nondirective meditation showed the highest amount of brain activity.

"I was surprised that the activity of the brain was greatest when the person's thoughts wandered freely on their own, rather than when the brain worked to be more strongly focused," said Xu. "When the subjects stopped doing a specific task and were not really doing anything special, there was an increase in activity in the area of the brain where we process thoughts and feelings. It is described as a kind of resting network. And it was this area that was most active during nondirective meditation."

Typically, brain activity is at its highest in these areas when we are at rest, co-author Svend Davanger, a University of Oslo neuroscientist said in a statement. "It represents a kind of basic operating system, a resting network that takes over when external tasks do not require our attention. It is remarkable that a mental task like nondirective meditation results in even higher activity in this network than regular rest," he said.

An estimated 20 million Americans meditate, according to a 2007 survey, which rose from 15 million in 2002, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "Meditation is an activity that is practiced by millions of people," Davanger added. "It is important that we find out how this really works."