Meditation and other mindfulness practices have been used for thousands of years to help individuals promote, sustain and regain mental peace. Today’s functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has helped scientists identify and measure activity in the areas of the brain that meditation helps settle down in real time.
The two areas that meditation settles down are the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). In an experimental setting both experienced mediators and novices can be challenged to think of disturbing events and then to engage in mindfulness exercises to see how quickly and how well the subjects could return to baseline activity in these two areas of the brain that facilitate wandering thoughts, alarm, upset, and hyper-vigilance.
Judson Brewer, MD, PhD is a pioneer in measuring and testing this kind of brain activity in the PCC and mPFC. What Dr. Brewer and his team found is that three forms of meditation helped to deactivate the part of the brain known as the default mode network (DMN) The DMN is involved in self-referential processing, including daydreaming and a wandering mind.
Brewers group also found that experienced meditators showed co-activation of the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) at baseline and during meditation. These altered connectivity patterns were consistent both during rest and during meditation. The PCC is an important part of the default mode network, and the dACC and dlPFC are both crucial regions for cognitive control.
In the graphs above, the effects of three kinds of meditation on PCC activity are shown. Choiceless Awareness is represented by the green bars, Loving-Kindness is represented by the red bars, and Concentration meditation is shown by the blue bars. Experienced mediators can not only settle down the PCC and mPFC both quickly and deeply, but they also have a lower level of baseline activity and they can recover from upset more quickly.
So. The take-home message is that mindfulness practices really work. This is true whether you are seeking to relieve anxiety or trying to break habits of stress eating, smoking cigarettes, reducing the use of drugs and alcohol. Because everyone can benefit from this, it pays to pick a practice, and get into the mindfulness habit. There’s no time like the present!