The brains of experienced meditators appear to be fitter, more disciplined and more "on task" than do the brains of those trying out meditation for the first time. And the differences between the two groups are evident not only during meditation, when brain scans detect a pattern of better control over the wandering mind among experienced meditators, but when the mind is allowed to wander freely.
Those insights emerge from a study to be published next week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which looked at two groups: highly experienced meditators and meditation novices, and compared the operations of the "Default Mode Network" -- a newly identified cluster of brain regions that go to work when our brains appear to be "offline."
"I think it's safe to say this is brain-training at work," says Yale University psychiatrist Judson Brewer, who conducted the study with psychologists from Yale, the University of Oregon and Columbia University. "It makes sense," adds Brewer. "Anything you train to do, you do better."
By the definition of the latest study, mental control was defined as the ability to keep two key nodes of the default mode network from becoming active during meditation. The posterior cingulate cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex appear to be hubs of the brain's "neutral" setting--areas that come alive when we are not engaged in a task that requires more specialized attention and let our minds wander. (Not coincidentally, they are also areas that tend to become active when we remember events in our past and think about other peoples' motives and intentions.) In the 12 veteran meditators who participated in the current study, those two regions were quieter during meditation than they were in the brains of the 12 meditation novices with which they were compared.