We have all found ourselves struggling to concentrate on a thought through all the chatter and imagery in our minds. Often, it is a work related problem, other times we try to understand our relationships and throughout our lives we attempt to ponder existence itself. The predicament with focus and the clarity of thought presents itself as an enticing case for study at a neurophysiological level. Meditation as a set of techniques that requires the practitioner to regularly conduct thought exercises or hold steady attention on an internal/external stimuli, can help to identify & understand neural structures implicated in concentration. There are several recent research papers which provide some excellent insight into the contemporary study of how the brain behaves and is ultimately changed through meditation. In Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners by J. A. Brefczynski-Lewis & A. Lutz, et al. the authors scanned the brains of 3 groups as they were asked to concentrate on a dot, using fMRI. The groups consisted of 16 non-meditators (NM), 11 non-meditators who were given an incentive of $50 if they were able to hold their attention (INM) and 14 expert Buddhist meditators (EM). Furthermore, the EM group was sub-divided into those with most hours of practice, with a mean of 44,000 hours (MHEM) and those meditators with less, mean of 19,000 hours (LHEM);each subgroup containing 4 meditators. Compared to NMs & INMs, EMs were found to have increased activation of attention-related brain regions of interest (ROI), while simultaneously having far less activation of regions unassociated with the task at hand, Fig 1. One of the most interesting results came from the comparison between expert meditator groups MHEMs and LHEMs; whereas LHEMs showed increased activation of ROIs & decreased activation of unassociated regions, MHEMs showed less activation of all brain regions while maintaining the most attention.
What this all means- with a decent amount of practice one can cause greater activation of attention-related regions of the brain, while simultaneously reducing the level of “chatter” and the activation of unrelated brain regions. More interestingly, we see that even amongst expert meditators those with a mean 44,000 hours of meditative practice shows far less activation of all brain regions, including attention related ROIs, compared with meditators who have half as much practice(Fig 2); this demonstrates networks involved in meditation become optimized with increased use, that is it requires less activation, less resources to have the same concentration. Whatever goal one has, having greater focus with more ease will ensure greater success. This paper gives some live data of what is happening in the brain as one performs meditative tasks while showing us that those with extensive practice have a significantly different response, hinting at structural changes. What those changes could possibly be, is discussed in part two of this post.
Brefczynski-Lewis JA, Lutz A, Schaefer HS, Levinson DB, & Davidson RJ (2007). Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104 (27), 11483-8 PMID: 17596341