"The entire orchestration of the symphony of mind unfolds like changes in a music score, and while there is no single, master conductor, the decentralized process does have hot spots of top-down modulation linked by connections built over evolutionary time."
Have Judson Brewer and his colleagues finally found a clue to how the reduction of suffering looks in the brain? Not the activation of a specific region, but a more general deactivation, a neurological letting go that parallels the experiential one?
Most days, I get into the neighborhood pool by 8:30 a.m. Even when there’s frost on the ground, the water is warm. Unless you’re the lifeguard, blowing the whistle when you want me to get out, I don’t know you exist. For 60 blessed minutes and 3,200 yards, I’m my only audience.
There’s nothing to look at, once the goggles fog over. Sound? The sloshing of water pretty much cancels out everything else. Taste and smell are largely of the chlorine and salt variety (though, at my old pool, I used to smell burgers cooking from the cafe downstairs). Despite all the tech advances of the last few years, you won’t see many swimmers wearing earphones or bone-conduction music devices: They just don’t work that well.
We enter the meditative state induced by counting laps, and observe the subtle play of light as the sun moves across the lanes. We sing songs, or make to-do lists, or fantasize about what we’re going to eat for breakfast. Submersion creates the space to be free, to stretch, without having to contend with constant external chatter. It creates internal quiet, too...
For better or worse, the mind wanders: We are left alone with our thoughts, wherever they may take us. A lot of creative thinking happens when we’re not actively aware of it. A recent Carnegie Mellon study shows that to make good decisions, our brains need every bit of that room to meander. Other research has found that problem-solving tends to come most easily when our minds are unfocused, and while we’re exercising...
The enforced solitude is at odds with where we are as a culture. Our gyms are full of televisions tuned to SportsCenter and cable news. We’re tethered to our devices, even at bedtime. With that pervasive lack of self-control, who has the willpower to turn off technology for any meaningful period of time? I submit: Sliding into the water is the easiest way to detach from your phone.
See also: Creswell, J. D., Bursley, J. K., & Satpute, A. B. (January 01, 2013). Neural reactivation links unconscious thought to decision-making performance. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8(8), 863-9. http://scan.oxfordjournals.org/content/8/8/863.short
Equanimity and generosity both contribute to well-being and are associated with distinct patterns of brain and bodily activity.
The Dalai Lama has frequently urged us to be kind toward others and has suggested that kindness is a direct route to happiness. Modern research has borne this out and indicates that kindness and compassion toward others is associated with peripheral biological (i.e., biology below the neck) changes that are salubrious.
Equanimity can be cultivated through simple contemplative practices and is associated with being attentive to the present moment and not getting lost in worrying about the future and ruminating about the past.
Modern research indicates that the average adult American spends nearly 50% of his waking life mind wandering—not paying attention to what he is actually doing. By learning to remain aware of the present moment, we can free ourselves from being slaves to the past and future. This in and of itself can powerfully facilitate well-being and reduce suffering.
Farb and his colleagues worked out a way to study how human beings experience their own moment-to-moment experience. They discovered that people have two distinct ways of interacting with the world, using two different sets of networks. One network for experiencing your experience involves what is called the "default network", which includes regions of the medial prefrontal cortex, along with memory regions such as the hippocampus. This network is called default because it becomes active when not much else is happening, and you think about yourself. If you are sitting on the edge of a jetty in summer, a nice breeze blowing in your hair and a cold beer in your hand, instead of taking in the beautiful day you might find yourself thinking about what to cook for dinner tonight, and whether you will make a mess of the meal to the amusement of your partner. This is your default network in action. It's the network involved in planning, daydreaming and ruminating.
This default network also become active when you think about yourself or other people, it holds together a "narrative". A narrative is a story line with characters interacting with each other over time. The brain holds vast stores of information about your own and other people's history. When the default network is active, you are thinking about your history and future and all the people you know, including yourself, and how this giant tapestry of information weaves together. In this way, in the Farb study they like to call the default network the 'narrative' circuitry. (I like the 'narrative circuit' term for every-day usage as it's easier to remember and a bit more elegant than 'default' when talking about mindfulness.)
When you experience the world using this narrative network, you take in information from the outside world, process it through a filter of what everything means, and add your interpretations. Sitting on the dock with your narrative circuit active, a cool breeze isn't a cool breeze, it's a sign than summer will be over soon, which starts you thinking about where to go skiing, and whether your ski suit needs a dry clean.
The default network is active for most of your waking moments and doesn't take much effort to operate.
There's nothing wrong with this network, the point here is you don't want to limit yourself to only experiencing the world through this network.
The Farb study shows there is a whole other way of experiencing experience. Scientists call this type of experience one of direct experience. When the direct experience network is active, several different brain regions become more active. This includes the insula, a region that relates to perceiving bodily sensations. The anterior cingulate cortex is also activated, which is a region central to switching your attention. When this direct experience network is activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or future, other people, or yourself, or considering much at all. Rather, you are experiencing information coming into your senses in real time. Sitting on the jetty, your attention is on the warmth of the sun on your skin, the cool breeze in your hair, and the cold beer in your hand.
"While our minds might be made to wander, they are not made to switch activities at anything approaching the speed of modern demands. We were supposed to remain ever ready to engage, but not to engage with multiple things at once, or even in rapid succession."
To be clear, this is in no way a new definition that is meant to disparage Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s widely disseminated description – Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally – but more so an attempt to dismantle the concept into component parts so that we can better study it in the laboratory.
Meditation and mindfulness: the words conjure images of yoga retreats and Buddhist monks. But perhaps they should evoke a very different picture: a man in a deerstalker, puffing away at a curved pipe, Mr. Sherlock Holmes himself. The world’s greatest fictional detective is someone who knows the value of concentration, of “throwing his brain out of action,” as Dr. Watson puts it. He is the quintessential unitasker in a multitasking world.
Marcus Raichle, a neurologist and radiologist at Washington University, got interested in daydreaming by accident. It was the early 1990s, and Raichle was studying the rudiments of visual perception. His experiments were straightforward: A subject performed a particular task, such as counting a collection of dots, in a brain scanner. Then he or she did nothing for thirty seconds. (“It was pretty boring for the subjects,” Raichle admits. “You always had to make sure people weren’t dozing off.”) Although the scanner was still collecting data in between the actual experiments, Raichle assumed that this information was worthless noise. “We told the subjects to not think about anything,” he says. “We wanted them to have a blank mind. I assumed that this would lead to a real drop in brain activity. But I was wrong.”
Daydreaming, March 17, 2012One day, Raichle decided to analyze the fMRI data collected when the subjects were just lying in the scanner waiting for the next task. (He needed a baseline of activity.) To his surprise, Raichle discovered that the brains of the subjects were not quiet or subdued. Instead, they were overflowing with thoughts, their cortices lit up like skyscrapers at night. “When you don’t use a muscle, that muscle isn’t doing much,” Raichle says. “But when your brain is supposedly doing nothing, it’s really doing a tremendous amount.”
Raichle was fascinated by the surge in brain activity between tasks. At first, he couldn’t figure out what was happening. But while sitting in his lab one afternoon, he came up with the answer: The subjects were daydreaming! (“I was probably daydreaming when the idea came to me,” Raichle says.) Because they were bored silly in the claustrophobic scanner, they were forced to entertain themselves. This insight immediately led Raichle to ask the next obvious question: Why did daydreaming consume so much energy? “The brain is a very efficient machine,” he says. “I knew that there must be a good reason for all this neural activity. I just didn’t know what the reason was.”
After several years of patient empiricism, Raichle began outlining a mental system that he called the default network, since it appears to be the default mode of thought. (We’re an absent-minded species, constantly disappearing down mental rabbit holes.) This network is most engaged when a person is performing a task that requires little conscious attention, such as routine driving on the highway or reading a tedious book. People had previously assumed that daydreaming was a lazy mental process, but Raichle’s fMRI studies demonstrated that the brain is extremely busy during the default state. There seems to be a particularly elaborate conversation between the front and back parts of the brain, with the prefrontal folds (locate just behind the eyes) firing in sync with the posterior cingulate, medial temporal lobe, and precuneus. These cortical areas don’t normally interact directly; they have different functions and are part of distinct neural pathways. It’s not until we start to daydream that they begin to work closely together.
All this mental activity comes with a very particular purpose. Instead of responding to the outside world, the brain starts to explore its inner database, searching for relationships in a more relaxed fashion.