Self-monitoring, cognitive control, and mind-wandering

Brewer, J.A., et al. (2011). Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 108(50). Published online. Full text.

Abstract: Many philosophical and contemplative traditions teach that “living in the moment” increases happiness. However, the default mode of humans appears to be that of mind-wandering, which correlates with unhappiness, and with activation in a network of brain areas associated with self-referential processing. We investigated brain activity in experienced meditators and matched meditation-naive controls as they performed several different meditations (Concentration, Loving-Kindness, Choiceless Awareness).

We found that the main nodes of the default-mode network (medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices) were relatively deactivated in experienced meditators across all meditation types. Furthermore, functional connectivity analysis revealed stronger coupling in experienced meditators between the posterior cingulate, dorsal anterior cingulate, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices (regions previously implicated in self-monitoring and cognitive control), both at baseline and during meditation. Our findings demonstrate differences in the default-mode network that are consistent with decreased mind-wandering. As such, these provide a unique understanding of possible neural mechanisms of meditation.

Background: Mind-wandering is not only a common activity present in roughly 50% of our awake life, but is also associated with lower levels of happiness. Moreover, mind-wandering is known to correlate with neural activity in a network of brain areas that support self-referential processing, known as the default-mode network (DMN). This network has been associated with processes ranging from attentional lapses to anxiety to clinical disorders, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Alzheimer’s Disease. Given the interrelationship between the DMN, mind-wandering, and unhappiness, a question arises: Is it possible to change this default mode into one that is more present-centered, and possibly happier? One potential way to reduce DMN activity is through the practice of mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness, a core element of diverse forms of meditation, is thought to include two complementary components: maintaining attention on the immediate experience, and (ii) maintaining an attitude of acceptance toward this experience.

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