Nondirective meditation activates default mode network and areas associated with memory retrieval and emotional processing

Nondirective meditation techniques are practiced with a relaxed focus of attention that permits spontaneously occurring thoughts, images, sensations, memories, and emotions to emerge and pass freely, without any expectation that mind wandering should abate. These techniques are thought to facilitate mental processing of emotional experiences, thereby contributing to wellness and stress management. The present study assessed brain activity by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in 14 experienced practitioners of Acem meditation in two experimental conditions.

In the first, nondirective meditation was compared to rest. Significantly increased activity was detected in areas associated with attention, mind wandering, retrieval of episodic memories, and emotional processing. In the second condition, participants carried out concentrative practicing of the same meditation technique, actively trying to avoid mind wandering. The contrast nondirective meditation > concentrative practicing was characterized by higher activity in the right medial temporal lobe (parahippocampal gyrus and amygdala). In conclusion, the present results support the notion that nondirective meditation, which permits mind wandering, involves more extensive activation of brain areas associated with episodic memories and emotional processing, than during concentrative practicing or regular rest.

Volitional and Spontaneous Activities in Meditation

Many types of meditation used for stress management and health can be described as a cycle of volitional and spontaneous cognitive processes (Cardoso et al., 2004). Attention is intentionally focused on a suitable meditation object, such as mental repetition of a non-semantic meditation sound, sensations associated with breath or specific regions of the body, a physical or mental visual image, or by simply being aware of the shifting flow of inner experiences (Cardoso et al., 2004; Ospina et al., 2007). Focusing on the meditation object is typically interspersed with periods of mind wandering (Cardoso et al., 2004; Ospina et al., 2007; Hasenkamp et al., 2012), which has been defined as being absorbed in spontaneously occurring thoughts, images, sensations, memories, and emotions unrelated to current volitional activity, more or less without really being aware of it (Mason et al., 2007; Christoff et al., 2009).

An example of this cognitive cycle is given in a detailed temporal study of meditation with focused attention on the breath (Hasenkamp et al., 2012). Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to correlate brain activation with cognitive processes that describes the shifting between focusing on the meditation object and spontaneously occurring thought. Mind wandering was associated with activation of the default mode network as well as sensory and motor cortices and posterior insula. Becoming aware that the breath was completely out of the focus of attention was associated with activation of the salience network. Shifting back to the breath and sustaining the focus on it were associated with elements of the executive network (Hasenkamp et al., 2012).

Different Perceptions of Mind Wandering

The function of spontaneous mental processes in meditation is controversial. How they are dealt with, depends on the type of practice (Box 13). In most mindfulness practices and many other techniques associated with Buddhist traditions, mind wandering is considered a distraction and a gateway to rumination, anxiety and depression (Sood and Jones, 2013). An ultimate goal of these methods is therefore to reduce mind wandering and its purported negative consequences (Brewer et al., 2011; Sood and Jones, 2013; Taylor et al., 2013). In contrast, some practices consider the spontaneous flow of inner experiences as part of the meditation process.

Accepting mind wandering while practicing is a core element in the Relaxation Response, Transcendental Meditation, Clinically Standardized Meditation, and Acem Meditation (Benson et al., 1975; Carrington et al., 1980; Carrington, 1998; Ospina et al., 2007; Davanger et al., 2010; Travis and Shear, 2010). As described below, these techniques may be classified as nondirective, indicating less control of the process while practicing (Box 3). It has been proposed that types of meditation that allow spontaneous thoughts, images, sensations, memories, and emotions to emerge and pass freely without actively controlling or pursuing them, over time may reduce stress by increasing awareness and acceptance of emotionally charged experiences (Ellingsen and Holen, 2008; Lutz et al., 2008a; Davidson, 2010).

This notion concurs with recent articles suggesting that mind wandering and activation of the default mode network in general may serve introspective and adaptive functions beyond rumination and daydreaming (Ottaviani et al., 2013). Potentially useful functions would include mental simulations, using autobiographical memory retrieval to envision the future and conceiving the perspective of others (Buckner et al., 2008; Andrews-Hanna, 2012). An interesting question is therefore whether type of meditation and mode of practicing might affect the extent of mind wandering and the pattern of default mode activation during meditation.

Box 1. Focused attention

Focused attention practices usually entail paying attention to the physical sensation of the breath wherever it is felt most strongly in the body, without trying to change it in any way. Whenever attention has wandered to something else, the meditator gently but firmly brings it back to the physical sensation of the breath (Brewer et al., 2011).

Important aims of the practice are to quickly detect mind wandering and maintain attention more stably on the breath, eventually needing less effort in the task, and over time reducing emotional reactivity (Lutz et al., 2008b). Focused attention practices typically involve a relatively narrow field of focus. As a result, the ability to identify stimuli outside that field of focus may be reduced (Lutz et al., 2008b).

Box 2. Open monitoring

Open monitoring practices (sometimes called choiceless awareness) are described as paying attention to whatever comes into ones awareness – whether it is a thought, emotion, or body sensation – just following it until something else emerges without trying to hold onto it or change it in any way (Brewer et al., 2011). Even though “effortful selection” or “grasping” of an object as primary focus is gradually replaced by “effortless sustaining of awareness without explicit selection,” the core activity of the practice is to sustain attention with the shifting flow of experiences, sometimes detecting emotional tone as a background feature (Lutz et al., 2008b).

Box 3. Nondirective meditation

In nondirective meditation practices, a relaxed focus of attention is established by effortless, mental repetition of a short sequence of syllables, which may either be a traditional mantra or a non-semantic meditation sound (Benson et al., 1975; Carrington et al., 1980; Ospina et al., 2007; Davanger et al., 2010; Travis and Shear, 2010). Whenever the meditator becomes aware that the focus of attention has shifted to mainly being occupied with spontaneously occurring thoughts, images, sensations, memories, or emotions, attention is gently and non-judgmentally redirected to repetition of the meditation sound. The aim of the practice is to increase the ability to accept and tolerate stressful and emotional experiences as a normal part of meditation as well as everyday life (Davanger et al., 2010). Attention is neither directed toward staying with the meditation object like in focused attention techniques nor directed toward observing the spontaneous flow of experiences like in open monitoring meditation (Lutz et al., 2008b).

Consequently, such methods comprise a distinct style of practicing (Cahn and Polich, 2006; Ellingsen and Holen, 2008; Travis and Shear, 2010), that has previously been termed nondirective meditation, as the presence of spontaneously occurring thoughts, images, sensations, memories, and emotions is accepted without actively directing attention toward them or away from them (Ellingsen and Holen, 2008; Lagopoulos et al., 2009; Nesvold et al., 2011). Further details on Acem meditation and its background are provided in previous publications (Ellingsen and Holen, 2008; Davanger et al., 2010).

Extent of Mind Wandering

It is often assumed that mind wandering is reduced during meditation, and more so in practitioners with many years of experience. The evidence comes from a relatively small number of studies in which the extent of mind wandering was assessed by questionnaire. Self-reported mind wandering during meditation was less abundant in participants with long-term experience in “concentration” (focused attention on breath), “loving-kindness meditation” (exercise oriented toward enhancing unconditional, positive emotional states of kindness and compassion), and “choiceless awareness” (open monitoring of mind wandering) compared to inexperienced controls (Brewer et al., 2011; Hofmann et al., 2011).

Self-reported time on task during “mindfulness of breathing” was higher in experienced than in inexperienced participants, indicating less mind wandering with training (Holzel et al., 2007). In contrast, there was no correlation between the number of button presses indicating epochs of mind wandering during focused attention on the breath with years of practice or with high vs. low practice groups (Hasenkamp et al., 2012). In this study, participants recorded an average of one mind wandering per 80 s over a 20-min fMRI session, by pressing a button whenever they realized that their mind had wandered completely away from the breath. Read ful text.

  • 1Department of Medical Imaging, St. Olavs Hospital, Trondheim, Norway
  • 2Department of Biological and Medical Psychology, University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway
  • 3Department of Psychology, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway
  • 4Clinical Research Unit, Brain and Mind Research Institute, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW, Australia
  • 5Department of Neuroscience, Faculty of Medicine, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway
  • 6Centre for Pain and Complex Disorders, St. Olavs Hospital, Trondheim, Norway
  • 7Department of Circulation and Medical Imaging, Faculty of Medicine, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway
  • 8Department of Cardiology, St. Olavs Hospital, Trondheim, Norway
  • 9Department of Anatomy, Institute of Basic Medical Science, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway

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