The Meditation Blog has received several questions about the connection between the brain’s Default Mode Network and meditation.
The discovery of the brain’s Default Mode Network by Raichle et al. (2001) opened new perspectives on how the brain works when we are at rest. Several areas of the cortex, mainly association areas, increase activation when the brain stops performing demanding tasks. The brain’s “Default Mode” refers to the network of regions that are activated when we are not engaged in external tasks.
Here we present the questions and answers from University of Oslo professor Svend Davanger, whose research areas are synaptic connectivity in the brain’s Default Mode Network and cortical activation patterns in nondirective meditation. He also volunteers as an Acem Meditation instructor.
Top image: The three brain scan images on the right show the Default Mode Network during the nondirective Acem meditation technique, and the three images on the left show the Default Mode Network during the concentration meditation technique.
Q. In scientific research on the Default Mode Network (DMN), I noted that the DMN is portrayed as a necessary evil, its activity decreases during meditation, which is supposed to be beneficial. In contrast, Acem argues that Acem Meditation increases DMN activity and is beneficial. what is true
A. It’s true that some researchers, especially a few years ago, were skeptical about the function of the DMN—also called the resting state network. They were mostly well-known and competent researchers. Today, there is little disagreement about their research findings. Most researchers in the DMN field today would interpret the results differently. There has never been general agreement among researchers that DMN is a “necessary evil” or that it is associated with poor quality of life. Conversely, the DMN represents approximately one-third of the cerebral cortex and is one of the three major networks of the brain. If this network wasn’t good for us, it probably wouldn’t have evolved. Both humans and mammals use this network for so-called mind wandering, which is the spontaneous scanning or monitoring of memories and future plans to better adapt to the world we live in. Mathias Grider and colleagues wrote in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience (2018): “The integrity of the DMN plays an important role in mental health, as DMN disruptions have been reported in schizophrenia spectrum disorders, depression, autism, and Alzheimer’s disease.”
Q. Many philosophical and contemplative traditions teach that “living in the moment” increases happiness. However, humans’ Default Mode appears to be this mode of the brain during mind wandering, which is associated with activation in a network of brain regions associated with unhappiness and self-referential processing (Brewer et al., 2011). Some research findings suggest that DMN activity is associated with worse quality of life. “A distracted mind is an unhappy mind” (Killingsworth & Gilbert 2010). What is the connection between mental confusion and distressing emotions?
A. Based on the same statements from the researchers cited in this question, the link between the DMN and stressful emotions in The Power of the Wandering Mind (Dyade Press, 2019, pp. 21-25). It is noted here that in a study by Killingsworth and Gilbert (2010), the authors show that during mind wandering, thoughts are more pleasant (42% of the time) than unpleasant (26.5%) or neutral. (31%). In addition, other researchers have found that when we sometimes experience sad emotions during mind wandering, these emotions are present before meditation. It is these emotions that lead us to think about sad thoughts, not the other way around (Poerio et al., 2013).
According to G. Bauer et al. (2019), in human subjects, although brain DMN activation was associated with mind wandering, meditation practice was found to suppress it and increase psychological well-being. In addition to reduced DMN activity, experienced meditators show increased connectivity between the DMN and the central executive network during meditation practice (CEN). How should we understand this?
A. This question addresses the relationship between meditation and DMN/mind wandering. An article in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (Xu et al., 2014: “Undirected meditation activates the default mode network and areas related to memory retrieval and emotional processing”) provides scientific evidence to support the common experience that activity levels decrease during Acem Meditation. The DMN is increased, meaning that there is more activity than usual during normal rest. One interpretation of this is that practicing Acem Meditation provides particularly effective relaxation. This article has had a significant impact: it has been cited by 51 other people and has been read about 83,000 times on the web.
When some researchers claim that DMN activity decreases during meditation, it is because meditation techniques are very different and have correspondingly different effects. Several studies show increased activity in a network called the central executive network and decreased activity in the DMN during mindfulness-meditation. However, the goal of mindfulness meditation is not to achieve relaxation, but to be able to focus, to be more aware of what is present in a given moment. This can be described as attention training.
This is a slightly different goal than Acem Meditation and other non-directive meditation techniques. The above-mentioned book The Power of the Traveling Mind offers this definition: “Meditation techniques are defined as being non-directive to the extent that they facilitate the mind’s stimulus-independent, spontaneous activity. This is reflected in increased activity of the brain’s default mode network, also known as the resting state network, during meditation.
A study by Xu et al. (2014) suggests that there is no increased activity of the DMN during meditation if Acem Meditation is practiced with concentration, as opposed to a free mental attitude. There are many signs of DMN-activity relaxation during Acem Meditation, making it easier to reduce stress and work through difficult emotions. Such effects are not the primary goal of mindfulness meditation.
Translated by Anne Grete Hersoug
Language editor: Eirik Jensen