New research on which to meditate

We hear a lot about meditation these days, mostly as an antidote to stress. But it has also been associated with improving mood and sleep quality, enhancing memory and reducing some of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Far from being a definitive technique, meditation takes many forms, from mindfulness (whose marketing machine seems to have been in overdrive in recent years), to mantra-based meditation, to guided visualisation, to plain old navel-gazing. Distinguishing between the varieties is bound to reward the effort, not least by providing an opportunity to evaluate the different effects.

A new study conducted at the University of Oslo goes some way towards doing this, by dividing meditation into two basic categories – concentrative and non-directive.

Concentrative meditation techniques focus on the breath or on certain thoughts, which, in turn, serve to eclipse other thoughts. Non-directive techniques focus on breathing or a certain sound, and allow the mind to wander. With these latter techniques, only when one becomes aware of the wandering mind does one steer back to the breath or the sound.

Participants who were highly experienced in non-directive meditation underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) under three conditions: while resting, as they were practising non-directive meditation and as they were practising one concentrative meditative technique.

The researchers found that when non-directive meditation was being practised, brain activity was greater in areas associated with processing self-related thoughts and sensations than when resting. But during concentrative meditation, brain activity was virtually the same as as when they were resting. 

This would suggest there is something about allowing the mind to wander which confers psychological benefit; according to Svend Davanger, one of the researchers, it is possible that non-directive meditation allows for more ‘space’ to process memories and emotions than concentrative technique.

What’s interesting is that the area of the brain which demonstrates increased activity during meditation is normally at peak activity when we are at rest. It represents a kind of default which takes over when external tasks do not require our attention. That non-directive meditation results in even higher activity in this region is quite remarkable.

So I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to meditate (jury’s out, for no other reason than chronic inertia), I’m going to choose the non-directive brand – and in the meantime, I’m happy to note there’s nothing wrong with a wandering mind!


Written by Jacqui Hogan