You’re sitting in traffic waiting for the light to change, when suddenly you’re mentally running through your to-do list for the rest of the day or you’re reflecting back on a conversation you had with a family member. A scenario like this is common – our minds tend to wander when we’re not doing things that require our full attention.

A growing body of research has shown that mindfulness training can strengthen the connections between the networks in our brain that support our ability to control our attention and to notice mind-wandering. A stronger connection between those two networks may give people an increased ability to catch when their mind wanders so they can return their focus back on the present moment.

In a recent study published in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, researchers at the Center for Healthy Minds aimed to replicate and extend prior research using the popular, standardized mindfulness training, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Researchers also wanted to see what the implications of stronger connections between those two networks were: What does it mean for our attentiveness and tendency for our minds to wander? 

“We were able to show that mindfulness training is related to improvement in networks in the brain that are important for attentional control of mind wandering. We also found preliminary evidence that these changes are associated with improvements in self-reported attention,” says graduate student Tammi Kral, the lead-author on the paper.

Participants in the study were new to meditation and were randomly assigned to one of three groups: placement on a waitlist with no other intervention, enrollment in a MBSR program or enrollment in an active control group that is well-matched to MBSR but doesn’t have a mindfulness training component. MBSR is a highly studied, well-established eight-week training program for mindfulness meditation.

People in all three groups participated in an fMRI brain scan and completed a self-reported questionnaire before and after the eight-week intervention period and again five to six months after the second visit.

In addition, participants received text messages at random times throughout the day the week prior to and after their intervention period, prompting participants, “Was your attention on the activity you were performing?” They were asked to rate their attention on a scale from one and nine, one meaning their attention was not at all on the task and nine meaning they were completely focused on what they were doing.

Results showed that participants in the MBSR program had a stronger connection between the two networks in the brain that are important for attentional control of mind-wandering, while participants in the other groups that lacked a mindfulness training component had no change in the connection between those networks. 

“This suggests that mindfulness training in particular is helpful in establishing this increased connection,” says Kral.

The evidence also shows that these changes are associated with improvements in self-reported attention in the MBSR group. “There was a relationship between improvements in self-reported attention on the questionnaire and a stronger connection between those two brain networks, so participants felt they had better attention and this matched with what we saw on their imaging,” says Kral. “Additionally, the more that those two brain networks were active together, the more there was an improved structural connection of white matter tracts between those networks. This is a promising area for future research.” However, stronger inter-network connectivity was not related to changes in attention as measured by the text messaging, underscoring the complex, multi-faceted nature of attention.

In this study, researchers also found that there was a relationship between the number of days that the MBSR participants practiced meditation and the amount of change in inter-network connectivity. The more days participants practiced mindfulness training, the stronger the connection between these two networks became.

Interestingly enough, five to six months after the MBSR course, researchers no longer saw a difference between the three study groups. However, for MBSR participants who continued to practice mindful meditation during that period, there was a continued stronger connection between networks.

“It appears that in order to maintain the benefits of mindfulness training, you need to maintain a practice,” says Kral. “Future research could examine how to incorporate mindfulness meditation practice as a lifestyle change to allow for continued improved results, similar to the need for continued exercise and healthy eating for maintenance of healthy weight.” 

Richard Davidson, the senior author of the article explains, “This study adds to a growing body of evidence that suggests some of the most important changes in the brain produced by meditation lie in altering the connectivity among various regions and circuits. How these changes in connectivity are reflected in behavior and experience still remain to be determined.  Also in need of further study is how longer-term meditation training impacts these circuits and the behavior associated with them.”

This article was originally published by the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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