Committed to a greater understanding of mindfulness and meditation in all their forms.
PhD candidate in critical mindfulness. Trained neuropsychologist and cognitive psychologist, also researching how compassion and explicitly nondual meditation methods influence our physical and mental health.
Stephen has decades of personal practice in spiritual and secular forms of meditation. Alongside the teaching and research of nondual methods, Stephen trains his own brain every day with Dzogchen based mind training.
Does mind wandering inevitably lead to unhappiness?
Authors: Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T.
Title: A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.
Summary: I’ve taken a step back with this study (chronologically speaking) because it predates the Jazaieri et al. paper that I recently reviewed. According to Google Scholar, this investigation has been cited by other researchers over 1500 times. If you read any scientific study linked to mind wandering since 2010 you can expect to find Killingsworth & Gilbert referenced. Three reasons why this work is so popular, firstly it was a big study, recruiting 2250 participants. Secondly, it took an innovative approach to the use of technology, using an iPhone app to track and record mind wandering in ‘real world’ scenarios. Finally, the study made some very strong statements which with hindsight, have perhaps oversimplified mind wandering. In particular, the idea that “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind”.
The full purpose of mind wandering is not yet understood, its activity is largely observed in the Default Mode Network (DMN). The DMN is a collection of anatomically separate regions that are most active when we are not engaged in a specific externally focussed task, hence our ‘default state’. The research concludes that mind wandering is a cause of unhappiness and (staggeringly) even mind wandering to positive subjects doesn’t appear to improve self-reported happiness. Provided with this kind of context it’s no wonder that the idea of suppressive mind wandering approaches maintained popularity across experimental and clinical psychology. Killingsworth & Gilbert even supported their case by claiming that many religious and philosophical traditions link happiness to living in the here and now.
Many forms of meditation and mindfulness do work on training consciousness to rest in the present moment. But from the Tibetan Buddhist perspective to equate this with a conclusion that mind wandering is a cause of unhappiness is somewhat misleading. Traditional meditation is often set in a wider context, undertaken for the benefit of all beings (self and other). Any merit that is accumulated from resting in the present moment is typically dedicated to others, rooting the practice in the past present and future. The idea that a thought, rather than the reaction (attachment or aversion) to the thought is the cause of unhappiness isn’t supported by the theoretical frameworks of traditional meditation systems.
Abnormally high levels of mind wandering are likely to be clinically problematic, but even today we don’t know all the functions mind wandering might have. It’s considered to be linked to the narrative we make to understand ourselves in the wider world. There isn’t evidence that the process itself brings unhappiness, it may be that the quality of our self-generated narrative rather than mind-wandering per se might be the problem. For example, 1 in 4, 14-year-old girls in the UK demonstrate symptoms of depression, and that teenage depression is correlated with social media use. Can we say that mind wandering to social media content, rather than emotions linked to social media content is the root cause of any reported unhappiness?
Train in compassion to create a more positive outlook.
Authors: Jazaieri, H., Lee, I. A., McGonigal, K., Jinpa, T., Doty, J. R., Gross, J. J., & Goldin, P. R.
Title: A wandering mind is a less caring mind: Daily experience sampling during compassion meditation training.
Summary: The concept of mind wandering is well known to all of us. It’s the kind of drifting off that we experience when we are not concentrating on a specific activity or goal, people also call it daydreaming or spontaneous thought. If we have a challenging task that requires our full attention we tend to do little or no mind wandering, and conversely, when we are mind wandering we are much less able to concentrate on a task. The two neural networks responsible for task functions and mind wandering respectively are thought to be negatively correlated, when one is more active the other in more passive and vice versa. The benefits of better concentration and task performance are obvious, but we are starting to see that mind wandering may also have a key role to play in our health and wellbeing. This study is one of the few investigations into meditation that acknowledges that mind wandering may have a positive role to play in our lives.
This study investigated the effects of nine weeks of compassion training on 51 adults. As part of my own research into meditation and mind wandering, I have revisited the paper. There are two conclusions that I’d like to draw your attention to. Firstly that the meditation was linked to a decline in mind wandering to neutral topics but an increase towards pleasant topics. That meditation can lead to decreased mind wandering is well known, the highlight of this study is that meditation seemed to change the type of mind wandering. This is highly suggestive that mind wandering has both a qualitative and quantitative aspect. That some forms of mind wandering might actually be beneficial in some way, therefore suppressing mind wandering generally might not of itself be a useful target of any wellbeing intervention.
The evidence that compassionate meditation can naturally draw the mind away from the negative and towards the positive could have profound implications for our health. Mind wandering is spontaneous, it’s not consciously constructed if compassionate meditation leads to a natural increase in positive thoughts, it indicates an association with a range of other cognitive processes. This view is supported by a second finding from the research, that compassionate meditation is linked to augmentation in caring behaviours for oneself and others.
The default mode network has a crucial but poorly understood role in how meditation influences brain structure and function. This paper sets out some of the current thinking regarding self-generated thought.
Authors: Andrews‐Hanna, J. R., Smallwood, J., & Spreng, R. N.
Title: The default network and self‐generated thought: component processes, dynamic control, and clinical relevance
Summary: It is frequently suggested that neuroscience is still in its infancy, this becomes patently clear when you start to consider how little we know about the default mode network (DMN). The DMN, also known as the default network (DN) or the task-negative network (TNN) is most active when humans are in a resting state. In short, the DMN is the network that takes over when we are not actively engaged in a specific task. Surprisingly it was assumed that the brain was resting when not engaged in an externally focussed activity. This assumption was surprising because scientists know that their brains are capable of complex processes such as mind wandering when they are not reacting to the external environment. However, only when it was demonstrated that functional brain activity could reach similar levels in task and non-task modes did the investigation into the DMN begin in earnest. This has particular relevance for meditators and contemplative science, as the DMN is often the direct and indirect target for meditation methods.
Andrews‐Hanna, Smallwood and Spreng produced a review of the leading findings linked to the DMN, which they describe as an anatomically diffuse global network. Their primary focus is the DMN and self-generated thought, thought that arise without external sensory stimulus. Describing much of the recent research in the field they conclude that the DMN plays an integrated role in a wide range of neurological functions. Thus both normal and abnormal mental health is dependent on activity and functional connectivity within the DMN and links to other neural networks. The paper provides a useful background to contemplative scientists looking for an understanding of how meditation might influence human behaviour.
Can meditation stop or reverse neurodegeneration? The answer is yes but the method can’t resolve any problems by itself.
Authors: Newberg, A. B., Serruya, M., Wintering, N., Moss, A. S., Reibel, D., & Monti, D. A.
Title: Meditation and neurodegenerative diseases.
Summary: Meditation research is now so fragmented that only by taking an overview can a fuller understanding of what we know be arrived at. In the research literature, these overviews are called strategic reviews or meta-studies. Newberg and colleagues offer their perspective on what we know about how our brain functions decline and what we can do to stop it. The authors set out the broad definitions for Alzheimer’s Disease, Frontotemporal lobar dementia (FTLD) including Pick’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease, and discuss the potential of meditation to help people with declining brain function.
There is no shortage of evidence for a relationship between meditation and both functional and structural change in the brain, but the devil really is in the detail. In common with a wide range of other behaviours, meditation will have an effect on the brain, but understanding which meditation methods create which effects is not a simple matter. This meta-study describes the influence of meditation into two areas, attention and memory, but it also includes an element of cognition more generally. The paper illustrates evidence for a relationship between meditation and improvements in performance in all three areas (attention, memory and other cognitive functions). Some of these improvements have been linked to recorded physical changes to the brain. Individual studies are discussed demonstrating quite specific effects of meditation practices. For example that vipassana meditation appears to improve working memory and focused attention methods may help sustained visual attention.
Unfortunately, there is almost no replication of the cited effects (replication being identical studies reporting the same results). This report also reduces all meditation to a singular family of mind training, evidence suggests that this is an unscientific approach. Grouping together methods from kundalini, tantra, sutra with MBIs in a meta-review is fraught with difficulty, particularly as robust theoretical frameworks for these practices don’t exist in neuroscience or cognitive psychology. However, in defence of the authors, meditation has been researched in the west for at least 45 years and attempts to understand and review progress should be welcomed.
Meditation and mindfulness may help to keep your brain young
Authors: Fotuhi, M., Lubinski, B., Trullinger, M., Hausterman, N., Riloff, T., Hadadi, M., & Raji, C. A.
Title: A personalized 12‐week ” Brain Fitness Program” for improving cognitive function and increasing the volume of hippocampus in elderly with mild cognitive impairment.
Summary: The idea that brain function inevitably declines as people grow older is firmly established in both clinical and cognitive branches of psychology. This particular study is one of only a handful that I have seen to suggest, that even in retirement, people can maintain and even increase both structure and function in the brain. Participants of retirement age with a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) were asked to engage in a number of activities linked to brain health. They included: cognitive stimulation, Omega 3 supplements, some physical exercise, a change in diet and mindfulness meditation. Participant undertook a range of cognitive tests before the interventions and at the end of the experiment.
Results showed that 84% of participants saw an improvement in their cognitive performance. Further neuroimaging examinations revealed that a majority of a sample of the participants also demonstrated no decline or an actual increase in the volume of the hippocampus. Although this was a preliminary study with a number of methodological problems, it is suggestive that people may have a lot more control over brain structure and function than is generally assumed. This kind of ‘shotgun’ approach can support general theories but adds little to our understanding of the extent to which particular interventions (or combination of interventions) may offer benefit. It also makes the establishment of robust scientific theory a challenge, as no single theory can incorporate such a wide range of activities. For example with a new diet, can cognitive changes be attributed to the food that was no longer being eaten or the new food? Or a combination of the two? However simply to demonstrate that older adults can experience increased structure in certain brain regions is an important contribution to our understanding of the human brain.
Authors: Kieran C.R. Fox, R. Nathan Spreng, Melissa Ellamil, Jessica R. Andrews-Hanna, Kalina Christoff
Title: The wandering brain: Meta-analysis of functional neuroimaging studies
of mind-wandering and related spontaneous thought processes
Summary: Thinking about the most common effects on the brain from meditation will lead you into an area that psychologists call spontaneous thoughts. These are defined as thoughts and ideas that seem to come out of nowhere and don’t necessarily have any obvious relationship to a specific task you may be undertaking. Meditation scientists have long considered that the most popular forms of secular meditation lower activity in regions of the brain known as the Default Mode Network (DMN). The DMN is strongly connected with, self-reflection, thoughts about relationships with others, memories of the past and our ability to project into the future. It is also the home to our mind wandering or drifting.
Mind wandering can increase under certain conditions and has been linked to a number of long term mental health problems including anxiety and depression. Many forms of meditation reduce activity in the parts of the DMN known to support spontaneous thoughts and mind wandering. This can be a great help to people that have problems concentrating or are troubled by negative or challenging thoughts. The research by Fox and colleagues undertook a review of 24 functional neuroimaging studies looking into mind wandering/spontaneous thought. Results confirmed that well-established centres in the DMN (medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, medial temporal lobe, and bilateral inferior parietal lobule) were associated with mind wandering. However, it was evident that a number of other brain regions were also engaged. The significance of the study was that spontaneous thought cannot be regarded as universally linked to a limited number of centres in the DMN. A range of regions in different networks appears to be instrumental to spontaneous thought and mind wandering.
The implication for meditation practitioners and researchers is that the apparent act of suppression or restriction of activity in the DMN cannot be seen in a narrow context and may have a broader implication for a number of interrelated processes.
Does compassion training lead to a lowering in self reported depression? This experiment involving second year medical students suggests it might.
Authors: Mascaro, J. S., Kelley, S., Darcher, A., Negi, L. T., Worthman, C., Miller, A., & Raison.
Title:Meditation buffers medical student compassion from the deleterious effects of depression
Summary: It’s no surprise to hear that the pressure from exams, and academic life in general, puts students under pressure, subjecting them to the effects of stress. This is a particular problem for medical students, given that compassion and attention to patient wellbeing are central to their professional development. Not only that but in professional practice, clinical staff may be frequently subject to the suffering of others. In an effort to study these and other issues, an experiment was undertaken to see if a course of Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) could be integrated into the curriculum of medical students in their second year of study. A second objective was to explore the effects of CBCT on the day to day functioning of the students, specifically looking at the ability of the intervention to raise compassion scores while lowering depression levels.
In a randomized, single-blind, wait-list controlled study, the students that were provided with CBCT saw an increase in compassion and a decrease in depression compared to control. Those students that had the highest self-reported levels of depression at the start of the experiment saw the most benefit from the intervention in terms of reduction to depression scores.