Mental Health Benefits
Attentional Equilibrium: Changing What We Pay Attention to
- Meditation builds a bigger brain, producing structural changes in the brain that enhance attention, perception and focus
- Meditation increases attentional expertise, enhancing processing efficiency, the amount of information we can process, and emotional perspective
- Meditation improves our ability to sustain attention and ignore distractions, even when we’re not meditating
- Experienced meditators can switch brain regions on and off in ways that improve attentional control, cognitive control and mental health, even when not meditating
- Experienced meditators may develop a new “Idle Mode” that’s more present-centered and less self-centered and leads to better mental health.
- Sahaja meditators have been found to have significantly larger grey matter volume across their entire brains, as well as in regions associated with, in part, sustained attention and cognitive control, emotional control.
- Meditation increases attentional sensitivity, allowing us to notice and appreciate the subtler aspects of things
- Controlling attention helps control emotion; emotional state is a product of what we pay attention to
- Meditation increases the circulation of neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine, dopamine and glutamate that enhance functions of attention
- Meditation can help relieve symptoms of ADHD
“Attention is psychic energy. Without it no work can be done, and in doing work, it is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we invest this energy. Memories, thoughts, and feelings are all shaped by how we use it. And it is an energy under our control, to do with as we please; hence, attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.”
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Attention is the name given to the process that governs which information enters our awareness and which does not. In truth, we are only aware of a small fraction of the information provided to the brain by our sensory systems. But meditation can not only increase the amount of information we’re able to process, it can help us process it more efficiently, and with a healthy emotional perspective.
In Sahaja meditation, attention is the vehicle that transports us to — and allows us to remain in — the state of thoughtless awareness. It is through this shift in attention, which transcends the ordinary mental, physical and emotional planes of awareness, that we receive the benefits of meditation. From this higher realm of consciousness, meditation can cultivate heightened awareness and improve many different aspects of attention and emotional processing.
Sahaja meditation techniques are designed to generate pure attention, a pure awareness of the present moment. It allows us to direct our attention, rather than allowing it to wander into stressful terrain.
Through the practice of Sahaja meditation, our attentional powers achieve a new sensitivity. We develop higher levels of perception and awareness. Rather than existing solely on the ordinary physical, mental and emotional levels we’re accustomed to, we begin to notice and appreciate the subtler aspects of things… dewdrops on a rose petal… crickets chirping through an open window… the subtle interplay of light and shadow in an oil painting we’ve had for years but long ago stopped noticing. Our sensitivity and awareness of many subtler traits within us (such as compassion, contentment and creativity) significantly increases. We develop a feeling for these traits within us. In fact, a higher percentage of our total attentional capacity becomes focused on subtler things.
The brains of meditators function differently from the brains of non-meditators. In the same way that physical fitness training strengthens muscles with time and practice, the regular practice of meditation can rewire important neural circuits in the brain and even alter brain structures.
Many studies have shown that the altered state of consciousness achieved through meditation is accompanied by real, demonstrable neurophysiological changes. The brain’s remarkable plasticity — its ability to respond to environmental enrichment — allows meditators to respond more effectively to life’s challenges.
One 2015 fMRI study found that during meditation, long-term Sahaja practitioners experienced activation in fronto-parieto-temporal regions involved in sustained attention, and in limbic regions involved in emotional control (Hernández et la, 2015). After passing through an initial intense neural self-control process necessary to silence the mind, Sahaja meditators experienced reduced brain activity commensurate with the deepening of mental silence (across the right inferior frontal cortex/insula), reflecting an effortless process of attentional contemplation associated with the state of thoughtless awareness.
Meditation can produce structural changes in the brain that enhance attention, perception and focus. Meditators, over time, may literally develop bigger brains.
The gray matter in brain regions associated with attention and sensory processing have been found to be more dense and higher functioning in people who meditate regularly. The ability to sustain attention, in particular, has been associated with increased gray matter density in the right hemisphere of the brain (Lazar, S., Bush, G., et al, 2005; Lazar, S., Kerr, C., et al, 2000; Posner, M., Rothbart, M., 2007).
A 2016 study of Sahaja meditation study using MRI and Voxel-Based Morphometry found that long-term Sahaja practitioners (compared with non-meditators) had significantly larger grey matter volume across their entire brains, as well as in regions associated with, in part, sustained attention and cognitive control, emotional control, self-awareness, interoceptive perception, and monitoring of autonomic functions (Hernández et al, 2016).
Increased gray matter volume in these attention and emotional regulation regions suggests that regular practice of Sahaja may enhance the functions controlled by these regions; for example, by exerting top-down emotional regulation and flexible appraisal and control of our own emotional states, particularly negative emotional states (Reva et al, 2014). These results suggest that regular Sahaja practice may enhance attentional control, interoception and emotional awareness neuroplastically; that is, provide lasting changes across the practitioner’s lifetime.
Other studies have found that white-matter fibers in the brains of active meditators are more numerous, more dense and better insulated, facilitating stronger, faster electrical connections between disparate brain regions, from regions involved in emotional processing to regions governing thought, perception and reasoning (Luders, et al, 2011). Stronger neural connections improves all aspects of cognitive functioning and helps us develop appropriate emotional perspectives.
Regular meditation improves our ability to sustain attention and increases our ability to ignore distractions, even when we’re not meditating. A study comparing experienced concentration meditators to novices found that meditation strengthened attentional focus and allowed meditators to achieve a tranquil state in which preoccupation with thoughts and emotions was gradually reduced (Brefczynski-Lewis, J., et al, 2007). Experienced meditators had less activity in brain areas associated with processing daydreams, distracting or task-unrelated thoughts, and emotions and more activity in brain areas involved with monitoring the quality of their attention during meditation.
During both meditative states and resting states, experienced meditators were less distracted than novices by external stimuli such as random sounds, for example: neutral (restaurant ambiance), positive (baby cooing), or negative (woman screaming). fMRI scans revealed activation of auditory processing pathways in all participants, proving that all meditators heard and processed the sounds during meditation, even those who were not distracted by them. Experienced meditators also showed less sustained brain activation because meditation required less effort for them. Meditators, over time, learn to “settle” into a state of decreased mental effort with alert focus. Sahaja meditation has been found to reduce complexity in brain activity — fewer neuronal “computations” and the ability to reduce incoming information helps us maintain internalized attentional focus and remain in the state of thoughtless awareness (Aftanas, L., Golocheikine, S., 2002).
Regular meditation can help us continue to adapt and improve our attentional skills throughout life. But even brief, short-term meditative practice offers benefits.
Some findings show that a 30-minute daily dose of meditation can significantly improve focus and performance in a matter of weeks (e.g., Baime, Jha, 2007), or that meditation can significantly improve vigilance and sustained attention after only four days of training, 20 minutes per day (Zeidan, Johnson, et al, 2010).
Many studies have found that meditation activates brain regions involved in attention and vigilance (e.g., Davidson, Lutz, et al, 2008).
Meditation can dramatically increase alertness and attention span, even for tasks that bore us to tears.
In fact, meditation has been found to be more effective than napping, caffeine or exercise, even for people with no prior meditation experience (O’Hara, Kaul, 2006).
Meditation also reduces attentional blink deficits, a phenomenon that occurs when two pieces of information are presented to us in close succession and our brains don’t detect the second piece of information because they were still busy processing the first (Slagter, H.A., Lutz, A., Greischar, L.L., et al 2007). (For more on attentional blink, please see Attentional Blink: Meditation Makes the Brain’s Information Processing More Efficient.)
Meditation’s Impact on Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD)
Meditation has the ability to to train attentional networks over time, which can improve a variety of cognitive functions, such as sustained attention, impulse control and self-monitoring (Brown et al., 1984; Jha, et al., 2007; Slagter et al., 2007).
Sahaja meditation has been found to significantly reduce attention deficits, impulsiveness and hyperactivity in children with AD/HD, especially when offered through a family treatment approach and in combination with existing medical treatment. (Harrison, Rubia, et al, 2004).
Meditation was shown to reduce “chaos” and inhibit task-irrelevant mental processes, allowing them to fine-tune control over attention and improve their ability to concentrate.
Sahaja meditation has been shown to increase activation of — and have “up-regulating” effects on — fronto-parietal attention networks (Aftanas and Golocheikine, 2001, 2002a,b, 2003). People with AD/HD are known to have reduced size and underactivation of fronto-parietal attention networks during tasks involved in inhibitory control (e.g., impulse control) and attention (Rubia, et al., 1999, 2001, 2005, 2008, 2009; Smith, et al., 2006). Sahaja meditation has also been shown to reduce hyperactivity (Rai et al., 1988; Manocha, et al., 2002). (For more information on how meditation helps AD/HD, see: Evidence of Meditation’s Ability to Relieve AD/HD Symptoms>.)
Standby Mode: The Idle Mind is Not Always a Quiet Mind
Meditation can not only turn on areas of the brain for our betterment, it can turn some off, too — the default mode network (DMN), for example. Think of the default mode network as the brain’s “standby” mode. The DMN is a network of brain regions (medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortex) that are active when the brain is at wakeful rest, idling — in other words, when we’re not attending a particular task and aren’t focused on the external world. The DMN kicks in when we’re daydreaming, or our attention lapses. But overactivation of the DMN has also been associated with several mental health disorders, including Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, depression, anxiety, autism, schizophrenia, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and even with the buildup of beta amyloid plaques in Alzheimer’s disease.
In Idle Mode, we should be resting and, well… idle. But the idle mind is not necessarily a quiet, relaxed mind. It may be a tortured mind. A wandering mind may be a worrying mind or a ruminating mind, one that is too focused on the past or too worried about the future, rarely able to simply exist in the present moment. In fact, the hallmark of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and autism is a preoccupation with one’s own thoughts.
Researchers have become interested in meditation’s interaction with the DMN because understanding how meditation flips switches on and off in the brain may provide clues to key mechanisms that drive mental health. A study at Yale University found that experienced meditators can switch off the brain’s DMN (Brewer, J., 2011). Experienced meditators were shown to have decreased activity in the DMN, even when not meditating, suggesting that meditation may have long-lasting effects on the brain.
But when this network was active in the brains of experienced meditators, regions associated with self-monitoring and cognitive control were also found to be active. Not true for novice meditators. The skilled meditators were better able to keep their minds from wandering, even when not meditating, and could continuously monitor and suppress the emergence of “me” thoughts. These two mental activities, at the extreme end of the spectrum, are characteristic of disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.
Several studies have found that Sahaja Meditators can switch off irrelevant neural circuitry, such as the mechanisms of external attention, in order to maintain focused, internalized attention and to inhibit negative, intrusive or distracting information (Aftanas L., Golocheikine S., 2001, 2002, 2005). Sahaja meditation is, in fact, characterized by the meditator’s ability to internalize attention while experiencing the emotional state of happiness or bliss (Rai, U.C., 1993).
The fact that experienced meditators may be able to co-activate the DMN and regions associated with self-monitoring and cognitive control, both during meditation and while resting, suggests that they have may have developed a “new default mode” that’s more present-centered and less self-centered. Attention that is present-centered is balanced. It is a state of equilibrium. Focusing on the present means that you’re not spending an excessive amount of time reflecting on the past or pondering the future. Attentional equilibrium, which is associated with positive mental health, adds a deftness to our attentional control, allowing us to effectively adapt, respond to, and manage new, emerging situations. (For more details on how Sahaja meditation balances attention, see: The Sahaja Meditation Perspective; Attention: The Vehicle to a Higher Plane of Consciousness.
How Controlling Attention Helps Control Emotion
Our emotional state, in any given moment, is very much a product of what we choose to pay attention to. Many of our problems can be traced to our attention becoming entangled with unhealthy emotions (e.g., fear, pain, sadness or anger).
Several studies, including studies of Sahaja meditation, have found that attentional control helps regulate emotional state, and that regularly training the mechanisms of internalized attention, coupled with experiencing positive emotions during meditation increases our psychological stability (e.g., Aftanas L., Golocheikine S., 2001, 2002, 2005; Cahn and Polich, 2006; Davidson, R., et al, 2004).
Researchers have found that long-term meditators have greater activity during meditation in a left-hemisphere area of the brain associated with the capacity to cope with negative events (Aftanas L., Golocheikine S., 2001; Davidson, R., et al, 2003). Past studies have established that activity in this brain region is associated with an enhanced ability to: orient and concentrate attention, effectively encode new information in memory, and process emotional information (Demiralp, T. and Basar, E., 1992; Basar, E., et al, 1999; Sasaki, K., et al, 1996; Klimesch, W, et al, 1998; Doppelmayr, M., et al, 1998; Krause, C., et al, 2000; Aftanas, L., et al, 2001).
And meditation increases the circulation of key neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine, dopamine and glutamate that enhance functions of attention, including orienting ability, learning, motivation, perception, memory consolidation and brain plasticity.
Through meditation, we can develop the ability to monitor experiences non-reactively and non-judgmentally, which can actually allow us to cognitively regulate emotion through attention. Enhanced attentional control reduces our emotional reactivity by regulating the amount of attention we allocate to processing emotional events and by preventing negative emotions from intruding on our thoughts. A fMRI study at Harvard investigating brain activity during simultaneous concentrative (awareness of the breath) and mantra meditation in Kundalini Yoga practitioners found increased brain activity in regions involved in attention, cognition and emotions (Lazar, S., et al, 2000). Mediation allowed these practitioners to cognitively monitor their emotions. The deeper and more intense their meditation sessions, the greater the brain activity — that is, the more they were able to actively regulate emotions. (For more details about how meditation regulates emotions, see: Meditation as Emotional Regulator.)
Through meditation, we achieve attentional equilibrium. Through attentional equilibrium we create a better self. As Psychologist Milahy Csikszentmihalyi once said of the circular causality between attention and self:
“The self directs attention and the attention determines the self. In fact, both these statements are true: consciousness is not a strictly linear system, but one in which circular causality obtains. Attention shapes the self, and is in turn shaped by it.”
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