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Meditation May Help Brains Rewire, Protect Against Mental Illness

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ULTRA F/Thinkstock(NEW HAVEN, Conn.) — The brains of experienced meditators may actually work differently than the brains of those who don’t meditate, a new study from Yale University suggests.

Dr. Judson Brewer, medical director of the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic, and his colleagues asked 10 experienced meditators and 13 people with no meditation experience to practice three basic meditation techniques: concentration, loving-kindness, and choiceless awareness.

The team then used functional magnetic resonance imaging to observe the participants’ brain activity when they were practicing the meditative techniques and when they were instructed not to think of anything in particular.

In a report published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Brewer and his team found that the experienced meditators had decreased activity in an area of the brain called the default mode network, a region that is usually at work when the mind wanders.  Even when the meditators weren’t meditating, this region of their brain was much quieter than in their inexperienced counterparts.

Brewer, who has practiced meditation for 15 years, said experience with meditation also seems to optimize the way the brain communicates with itself.  When the default mode networks of the experienced meditators were active, so were brain regions associated with self-monitoring and cognitive control.

“These guys have a different default mode,” Brewer said. “They’re constantly looking out for mind wandering [or daydreaming].”

Brewer also notes that the psychological hallmark of many forms of mental illness — anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia — is a preoccupation with one’s own thoughts, specifically the negative ones.  A series of studies have linked these disorders with overactivity or faulty neurological wiring in the default mode network, the brain region that was less active in experienced meditators.

“One of the things that meditation and basic mindfulness seems to be doing is quieting down this region of the brain,” Brewer said.  “It absolutely makes sense, given what we know about the default mode network.”

Meditation isn’t a cure for mental illness, Brewer said, but he said his study suggests that there may be a neurological basis for the benefits that many meditators report — increased awareness, improved concentration, and a better ability to deal with the cognitive and emotional stresses of modern life.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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