Researchers from Yale University are suggesting that experienced meditators’ ability to “turn off” their brains might also keep them in good health – and free from mental disorders such as schizophrenia and autism.

The researchers conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging scans on the brains of both experienced and novice meditators as they practiced three different meditation techniques and found that the experienced meditators had decreased activity in areas of the brain called the default mode network. This area of the brain, consisting of the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortex, is linked with anxiety disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and the contributing buildup of beta amyloid plaques in Alzheimer’s disease.

The scans also found that parts of the brain associated with self-monitoring and cognitive control were co-activated in experienced meditators but not in novice ones. This, the researchers say, might suggest “that meditators are constantly monitoring and suppressing the emergence of ‘me’ thoughts, or mind-wandering. In pathological forms, these states are associated with diseases such as autism and schizophrenia. The meditators did this both during meditation, and also when just resting — not being told to do anything in particular. This may indicate that meditators have developed a ‘new’ default mode in which there is more present-centered awareness, and less ‘self’-centered.”

According to study author Judson Brewer, “Meditation’s ability to help people stay in the moment has been part of philosophical and contemplative practices for thousands of years. Conversely, the hallmarks of many forms of mental illness is a preoccupation with one’s own thoughts, a condition meditation seems to affect. This gives us some nice cues as to the neural mechanisms of how it might be working clinically.”

Source: Yale University

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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