It is possible to pay attention effortlessly, your mind “pulled by the inherent nature of the object of experience”. In fact, with practice, doing so can “lead you to experience inner silence, tranquility, peace and transcendence”. That’s according to a research team led by Michelle Mahone at the California School of Professional Psychology, who have published in Brain and Cognition what they describe as the first neuroimaging study of people in the midst of Transcendental Meditation (TM).
The 16 women volunteers (average age 60) had practised TM for an average of 34 years, meaning they had amassed around 36,000 hours of meditation practice. The researchers scanned the meditators’ brains while they lay resting with their eyes closed and then while they meditated for 10 minutes. The volunteers’ extensive mastery at meditation allowed them to achieve “bliss”, “deep restfulness” and “clear transcending” despite the noise and discomfort of the brain scanner.
Compared with rest, the scans showed that while meditating the volunteers exhibited increased activity at the front of their brains (in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate gyrus), alongside reduced activity in the cerebellum and the pons – structures at the back of the brain and in the brain stem. These latter activity reductions have not been observed in brain scan studies of other forms of meditation that involve focused attention (for example on one’s breathing) or open monitoring (paying mindful non-judgmental attention to one’s thoughts and sensations).
The researchers said their findings were consistent with the idea that Transcendental Meditation involves a unique form of effortless attention, in which “the attention is guided by the inherent pleasure of inner transcendence, rather than through cognitive evaluation and control”. The increase in frontal brain activity reflects the engagement with a specific experience, they said, while the minimal control required was reflected in reduced activity in the cerebellum and pons.
Sceptical readers may feel that the researchers are guilty of “reverse inference” – making assumptions about the meaning of the brain activity patterns that they observed. Mahone’s team said further research is needed to directly compare brain activity during different meditation practices.