A recent article in Forbes offers some background:
Last year, a Harvard study confirmed that there’s a clear connection between mind wandering and unhappiness. Not only did the study find that if you’re awake, your mind is wandering almost half the time, it also found that this wandering is linked to a less happy state.
Another study found that mind wandering is linked to activation of network of brain cells called the default mode network (DMN), which is active not when we’re doing high-level processing, but when we’re drifting about in “self-referential” thoughts (read: when our brain is flitting from one life-worry to the next).
Because most of our have minds that wander to things that worry or annoy us or to things we crave, a key goal of meditation and contemplation is to acknowledge the thought, and not judge it but dismiss it. Until it becomes a habit. So, not surprisingly,
New research by Judson Brewer, MD, PhD and his group at Yale University has found that experienced meditators not only report less mind wandering during meditation, but actually have markedly decreased activity in their DMN. Earlier research had shown that meditators have less activity in regions governing thoughts about the self, like the medial prefrontal cortex: Brewer says that what’s likely going on in experienced meditators is that these “‘me’ centers of the brain are being deactivated.”
Of course the meditator is well aware that he or she exists, but focuses away from self-identified concerns, toward inner peace.
Interestingly, gratifying desires (giving in to the desire for a cigarette, for example) does not work nearly as well in the long term because
In addition to the pleasurable associations, smoking actually creates a negative feedback loop, where you are linking stress and craving with the oh-so-good act of smoking. So whenever you experience a negative emotion, craving returns and intensifies over time, so that you are actually even less happy than before. A cigarette may quiet the mind temporarily – during the act of smoking – but in between cigarettes is where things get bad, because craving creeps in. Though we’re using craving as the example, unhappiness, self-referential thoughts, or everyday worries can all be substituted in. More.
Mindfulness therapy assumes that, for practical purposes, you do have free will and can get control of troubling thought patterns or break cycles of addiction.
Theresa of Avila, pictured above, used to say that the solution to distraction during contemplation or religious services was to just accept it, dismiss it, and press on anyway, rather than let it become another source of worry.
Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose