Reduces mind wandering

Jazaieri, H., et. al. (2015). A wandering mind is a less caring mind: Daily experience sampling during compassion meditation training. The Journal of Positive Psychology, (ahead-of-print), 1-14. Abstract.

Mind wandering, or the tendency for attention to drift to task-irrelevant thoughts, has been associated with worse intra- and inter-personal functioning. Utilizing daily experience sampling with 51 adults during 9-weeks of a compassion meditation program, we examined effects on mind wandering (to neutral, pleasant, and unpleasant topics) and caring behaviors for oneself and others.

Results indicated that compassion meditation decreased mind wandering to neutral topics and increased caring behaviors towards oneself. When collapsing across topics, mind wandering did not serve as an intermediary between the frequency of compassion meditation practice and caring behaviors, though mind wandering to pleasant and unpleasant topics was linked to both variables.

A path analysis revealed that greater frequency of compassion meditation practice was related to reductions in mind wandering to unpleasant topics and increases in mind wandering to pleasant topics, both of which were related to increases in caring behaviors for oneself and others.

Mind-wandering may have positive effects on mood

Franklin, M. S., et al. (2013). The silver lining of a mind in the clouds: interesting musings are associated with positive mood while mind-wandering. Frontiers in psychology, 4. Full text.

The negative effects of mind-wandering on performance and mood have been widely documented. In a recent well-cited study, conducted a large experience sampling study revealing that all off-task episodes, regardless of content, have equal to or lower happiness ratings, than on-task episodes.

We present data from a similarly implemented experience sampling study with additional mind-wandering content categories. Our results largely conform to those of the above study, with mind-wandering generally being associated with a more negative mood.

However, subsequent analyses reveal situations in which a more positive mood is reported after being off-task. Specifically when off-task episodes are rated for interest, the high interest episodes are associated with an increase in positive mood compared to all on-task episodes. These findings both identify a situation in which mind-wandering may have positive effects on mood, and suggest the possible benefits of encouraging individuals to shift their off-task musings to the topics they find most engaging.

Mind-wandering and brain networks

Sood, A., & Jones, D. T. (2013). On Mind Wandering, Attention, Brain Networks, and Meditation. Explore: The journal of science and healing, 9(3), 136–141.

Abstract: Human attention selectively focuses on aspects of experience that are threatening, pleasant, or novel. The physical threats of the ancient times have largely been replaced by chronic psychological worries and hurts. The mind gets drawn to these worries and hurts, mostly in the domain of the past and future, leading to mind wandering. In the brain, a network of neurons called the default mode network has been associated with mind wandering. Abnormal activity in the default mode network may predispose to depression, anxiety, attention deficit, and posttraumatic stress disorder.

Several studies show that meditation can reverse some of these abnormalities, producing salutary functional and structural changes in the brain. This narrative review presents a mechanistic understanding of meditation in the context of recent advances in neurosciences about mind wandering, attention, and the brain networks.

Improves working memory capacity

Mrazek, M.D., et al. (2013). Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering. Psychological Science, 24(3). Epublished ahead of print issue.

Abstract. Given that the ability to attend to a task without distraction underlies performance in a wide variety of contexts, training one’s ability to stay on task should result in a similarly broad enhancement of performance. In a randomized controlled investigation, we examined whether a 2-week mindfulness-training course would decrease mind wandering and improve cognitive performance.

Mindfulness training improved both GRE reading-comprehension scores and working memory capacity while simultaneously reducing the occurrence of distracting thoughts during completion of the GRE and the measure of working memory. Improvements in performance following mindfulness training were mediated by reduced mind wandering among participants who were prone to distraction at pretesting.

Our results suggest that cultivating mindfulness is an effective and efficient technique for improving cognitive function, with wide-reaching consequences.

Detection and modulation of mind-wandering

Kerr, C.E., et al. (2013). Mindfulness starts with the body: somatosensory attention and top-down modulation of cortical alpha rhythms in mindfulness meditation. Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, 7(12). Epublished Feb 13.

Abstract: Using a common set of mindfulness exercises, mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) have been shown to reduce distress in chronic pain and decrease risk of depression relapse. These standardized mindfulness (ST-Mindfulness) practices predominantly require attending to breath and body sensations.

Here, we offer a novel view of ST-Mindfulness’s somatic focus as a form of training for optimizing attentional modulation of 7-14 Hz alpha rhythms that play a key role in filtering inputs to primary sensory neocortex and organizing the flow of sensory information in the brain.

In support of the framework, we describe our previous finding that ST-Mindfulness enhanced attentional regulation of alpha in primary somatosensory cortex (SI). The framework allows us to make several predictions. In chronic pain, we predict somatic attention in ST-Mindfulness “de-biases” alpha in SI, freeing up pain-focused attentional resources. In depression relapse, we predict ST-Mindfulness’s somatic attention competes with internally focused rumination, as internally focused cognitive processes (including working memory) rely on alpha filtering of sensory input.

Our computational model predicts ST-Mindfulness enhances top-down modulation of alpha by facilitating precise alterations in timing and efficacy of SI thalamocortical inputs. We conclude by considering how the framework aligns with Buddhist teachings that mindfulness starts with “mindfulness of the body.”

Translating this theory into neurophysiology, we hypothesize that with its somatic focus, mindfulness’ top-down alpha rhythm modulation in SI enhances gain control which, in turn, sensitizes practitioners to better detect and regulate when the mind wanders from its somatic focus. This enhanced regulation of somatic mind-wandering may be an important early stage of mindfulness training that leads to enhanced cognitive regulation and metacognition.

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.