I have recently made a commitment to practice a daily meditation. The source of my motivation came through the proverbial grapevine: I heard others found value in the practice, so why couldn’t I? More than a month into it, I can’t now go back. In this piece, I hope to summarise the research around meditation and the effects that appear from its consistent practice.

Our curious mind

It is an evolutionarily significant that the human mind wanders as much as it does. This stimulus-independent thought is the source of curiosity; this feature encourages us to question, reflect, and learn. One cost that researchers have found is that there is, however, an emotional cost attached to this default feature.

A wandering mind is an unhappy mind

Killingsworth & Gilbert (2010) partnered with Apple to study how the wandering mind affects our happiness levels. Together, they developed an app which would prompt a random sample of iPhone users with some questions. These included:

  • How are you feeling right now?
  • What are you doing right now?
  • Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?

The first question gauged their self-reported happiness level out of 1 to 100. The second question collects context over what they are doing in that moment when prompted by the app. This is important because the prompt is at a random time of day, and so could be doing one of a number of activities. The final question captures if their minds were wandering, and if so, whether it was wandering off in a pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant direction. The final sample used in the analysis ended up being in the hundreds of thousands.

46.9% of all the individuals happened to be mind-wandering at the moment of prompting. When looking at the same percentage per activity, it was no lower than 30%. When you think about it, that is quite high. If you think about a work meeting of 10, odds are at least 3 of the participants’ minds are elsewhere. The second interesting finding was that wandering minds tended to be less happy than when thinking about the activity at hand. There did not matter if even they were wandering down a pleasant direction, it worsened when they wandered down a neutral or unpleasant direction.

It is natural for the mind to wander

Mason et. al (2007) found evidence of the inner workings of mind-wandering. Using thought-sampling and brain-imaging, they were able to demonstrate mind-wandering is associated with activity in the in the brain’s default network which is the cortical region active when the brain is at rest. In other words, our minds are wired to wander when our brains are at rest.

Meditation as an antidote to mind-wandering

Brewer et. al (2011) sought to investigate these default wirings for mind-wandering by studying experienced meditators. Their findings demonstrate that the differences in brain’s default-mode network are consistent with reduced mind-wandering when compared to non-meditators. This suggests that deliberate and consistent meditation will rewire our brain’s default-mode network such that mind-wandering is a less prominent feature. Hypothetically, if the same examinations were made on someone like Siddhārtha Gautama, you would expect stronger results than the ones found here.

Meditation is empowering

Meditation can make us happier

Frederickson et. al (2008) found that an intervention of loving-kindness meditation makes you happier. They randomly assigned half of the participants a regular practice of loving-kindness meditation. The results were remarkable. Over time, the group with the meditation practice produced an increase in daily experiences of positive emotions. These contributed to stronger feelings of mindfulness, purpose in life, and social support, among other things. In turn, it helped to predict life satisfaction.

Meditation can boost our cognitive ability

Hölzel et al. (2011) found a consistent meditation practice to be linked with increase grey matter in the brain. This is significant because grey matter is a network of brain regions that processes information. An increase equivalent to using more parts of your brain i.e. getting more out of it. The amount of gray matter is found to be higher in those with high IQ versus low IQ, which suggests that a similar result would hold for EQ and other cognitive abilities.

The researchers employed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a widely used mindfulness training program designed to produce positive progress on psychological well-being, as a basis for a controlled longitudinal study. They investigated the pre and post changes in grey matter density. The result after the 8-week program was that the region of grey matter increased. In particular, they saw this increase in the brain regions involved with learning and memory process, emotional regulation, and perspective taking.

Mrazek et. al (2013) conduct a similar study but looked at the effect of a 2-week mindfulness program on GRE test scores. They sought to find clarity around whether mind-wandering was reduced and if that led to increases in cognitive performance. In line with the other aforementioned investigations, the results showed an increased in GRE reading-comprehension scores when comparing to post and pre-mindfulness program. It goes to show that mindfulness is an effective approach to improving cognitive function.

Meditation can engender social connectedness

Hutcherson et. al (2008) found that loving-kindness meditation could increase feelings of social connectedness with strangers even after just a few minutes. One group had a closely-matched control task while another did a loving-kindness meditation. The latter, even just for a few minutes, increased feelings of social connection and positivity towards strangers in the room through both an explicit and implicit measures. It proves to be a good technique to improve positive social emotions and decrease social isolation.

Meditation as a daily practice

In light of the evidence, you can’t but acknowledge how transformative meditation can be. Like anything, the benefits scale with consistency and longevity. A daily practice, even if only for 5 minutes, will contribute towards reducing the mind-wandering feature of our default-mode brain network. You can read further about my experience with a consistent meditation practice here.

References

Killingsworth & Gilbert (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932–932.

Mason et al. (2007). Wandering minds: The default network and stimulus-independent thought. Science,315(5810), 393–395.

Brewer et al. (2011). Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(50), 20254-20259.

Fredrickson et al. (2008). Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of personality and social psychology, 95(5), 1045-1062.

Hölzel et al. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191(1), 36-43.

Mrazek et al. (2013). Mindfulness training improves working memory capacity and GRE performance while reducing mind wandering. Psychological science, 24(5), 776-781.

Hutcherson et al. (2008). Loving-kindness meditation increases social connectedness. Emotion, 8(5), 720.


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