What is happening inside the brain while a person meditates and how does it affect the way we process the world around us?
Meditation is becoming increasingly popular as a topic for scientific research and theories on meditation are becoming ever more specific. In a recent published review, we describe between several types of meditation techniques, primarily the Focused Attention Meditation (FAM) and Open Monitoring Meditation (OMM). We suggests that these meditations have differential, dissociable effects on a wide range of cognitive (control) processes.
Usually, FAM is the starting point for any novice meditator. During FAM the practitioner is required to focus attention on a chosen object or event, such as breathing or a candle flame. To maintain this focus, the practitioner has to constantly monitor the concentration on the chosen event so to avoid mind wandering . Once practitioners become familiar with the FAM technique and can easily sustain their attentional focus on an object for a considerable amount of time, they often progress to OMM. During OMM the focus of the meditation becomes the monitoring of awareness itself. In contrast to FAM, there is no object or event in the internal or external environment that the meditator has to focus on. The aim is rather to stay in the monitoring state, remaining attentive to any experience that might arise, without selecting, judging, or focusing on any particular object.
Different meditation types, different effects on attention
Different meditation techniques bias the practitioner to either a narrow or broad spotlight of attention. This distinction is thought to be most evident with regard to FAM and OMM. FAM induces a narrow attentional focus due to the highly concentrative nature of the meditation, whereas OMM induces a broader attentional focus by allowing and acknowledging any experiences that might arise during meditation. This effect on the brain is shown by changes in scalp-recorded brain potentials which are thought to index attentional resource allocation.
Meditation types and conflict monitoring
A fundamental skill acquired through meditation is the ability to monitor the attentional focus in order to “redirect it” in the case of conflicting thoughts or external events. Not surprisingly, several studies have already shown improvements in conflict monitoring after meditation. This effect is highlighted by higher degree of connectivity of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). As the ACC is involved in processes such as self-regulation, detecting interference and errors, and overcoming impasses, improvements in ACC functioning might well mechanism by which meditation improves conflict resolution.
Research on meditation is still in its infancy but we are slowly increasing our understanding of its neural and functional underpinnings. In the future it would be interesting to see studies that compare the different meditation techniques on various cognitive and affective tasks as there is a big shortcoming in comparative studies, especially with regard to neuroscientific research.
Lippelt, D. P., Hommel, B., & Colzato, L. S. (2014). Focused attention, open monitoring and loving kindness meditation: effects on attention, conflict monitoring and creativity. Frontiers in Cognition, 5, 1083.