Brain Scans Show How Meditation Improves Mental Focus

People who regularly practice meditation may improve their mental focus by altering brain function. Compared to non-meditators, they may be better equipped to quiet brain activity related to mind-wandering, a new study in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests. This may come as good news, considering the buzz on our increasingly shrinking attention spans.

The study, by Italian neuroscientist Giuseppe Pagnoni, found that meditation not only changes brain patterns, but it also confers advantages in mental focus that may improve cognitive performance.

For the study, Pagnoni, who has a longstanding interest in how meditation affects the brain, recruited twelve Zen meditators who had been practicing for at least three years. In a recent article at LiveScience, Charles Q. Choi quotes Pagnoni saying he “had to screen—and discard—a number of colorful characters who…declared that they were meditating regularly by screaming in a towel while stomping their feet on the ground, or that they were communicating frequently with beings of other planets—such are the unexpected joys of this research!”

He compared the final group of meditators to a control group of twelve volunteers who had never meditated, but were the same age and had the same education level as the meditators.  Pagnoni then put each of them into an MRI machine to measure brain patterns.

Compared to non-meditators, meditators had more stability in their ventral posteromedial cortex (vPMC). The vPMC, a region linked to spontaneous thoughts and mind-wandering, lies on the underside of the brain, in the middle of your head.

Pagnoni thought the vPMC might be important for mental focus because, in most people, it’s almost always active. As he writes, many fMRI studies use “the so-called ‘resting state,’” where subjects lie in a brain scanner and with instructions “not to engage in any mental act.” However, even when people tried to turn off their thoughts, researchers consistently found activity emerging from the vPMC. This led to the conception of a “default mode network”—brain activity that’s constantly running in the background. Pagnoni thought that enhanced control over default activity may be what separates experienced meditators from novices, and may also be crucial for focus. Read full Article