September 3, 2008

Study: Zen Meditation Really Does Clear the Mind

The seemingly nonsensical Zen practice of "thinking about not
thinking" could help free the mind of distractions, new brain scans

This suggests Zen meditation could help treat attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (so-called ADD or ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorder, major depression and other disorders marked by distracting thoughts.

In the last decade, there has been a resurgence of scientific
research into meditation, due in part to the wide availability and
increasing sophistication of brain-scanning techniques. For instance,
scientists recently found that months of intense training in meditation
can sharpen a person's brain enough to help them notice details they
might otherwise miss.

"It is important that this type of research be conducted with high
scientific standards because it carries a long-standing stigma -
perhaps well-deserved? - of being wishy-washy," said researcher
Giuseppe Pagnoni, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta.
"Constructive skepticism should always be welcomed as a great sparring

Pagnoni and his colleagues investigated Zen meditation, which Pagnoni himself has practiced while studying for his doctorate in Italy.

The Zen of Zen

Zen meditation vigorously discourages mental withdrawal from the
world and dreaminess, and instead asks one to keep fully aware with a
vigilant attitude. It typically asks one to silently focus on breathing
and one's posture with eyes open in a quiet place and to calmly dismiss
any thoughts as they pop up, essentially "thinking nothing." One can
over time learn how to keep one's mind from wandering,
become aware of otherwise unconscious behaviors and preconceived
notions and hopefully gain insights into oneself, others and the world.

To see what effects Zen meditation might have on the brain,
scientists compared 12 people from the Atlanta area with more than
three years of daily practice in Zen meditation with 12 novices who had
never practiced meditation.

The researchers "had to screen - and discard - a number of colorful
characters who during the interview declared that they were meditating
regularly by screaming in a towel while stomping their feet on the
ground, or that they were communicating frequently with beings of other planets," Pagnoni recalled. "Such are the unexpected joys of this research!"

As the volunteers had their brains scanned, they were asked to focus
on their breathing. Every once in a while, they had to distinguish a
real word from a nonsense word displayed at random times on a computer
screen and, having done that, promptly try and focus on their breathing

Their scans revealed that Zen training led to different activity in
a set of brain regions known as the "default network," which is linked
with spontaneous bursts of thought and wandering minds. After
volunteers experienced in Zen were distracted by the computer, their
brains returned faster to how they were before the interruption than
novice brains did. This effect was especially striking in the angular
gyrus, a brain region important for processing language.

"The regular practice of meditation may enhance the capacity to limit the influence of distracting thoughts," Pagnoni said.

Posturing the findings

"What I find really interesting in this approach is that it stands
to regulate the mind by regulating the body - posture, breathing,"
Pagnoni said. The neural circuits for controlling posture are quite
distinct from those responsible for higher brain functions, "and
perhaps shifting one's attention to posture or breathing facilitates a
temporary quelling of mental chatter."

By teaching people how to clear their minds of interruptions, Zen
meditation could help disorders marked by distracting thoughts, Pagnoni

"There is already some evidence that a behavioral therapy
incorporating elements of mindfulness training derived from meditation
can be beneficial in reducing relapses in major depression," Pagnoni

Pagnoni added that the default mode network might be especially vulnerable to Alzheimer's disease.

"Although we enter the field of wild speculations here, could the
practice of meditation, by providing regular intervals of respite in
the incessant working of the default network, have - if mildly -
protective effects for Alzheimer disease?" he conjectured.

Pagnoni noted one potential failing of the study was that the
volunteers experienced in Zen meditation might have some innate
capacity for controlling their thoughts, explaining the differences
seen. Ideally, scientists could track novices as they grow experienced
in Zen meditation, to see if their brains change or not, he said.

The research, funded by a National Institutes of Health grant, is detailed online Sept. 3 in the journal PLoS ONE.