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“There are two types of images,” Lutz explains. “Structural images give us a snapshot of brain anatomy. Functional images show the dynamic activity within the brain over time. We can try to observe, for example, how the brain regions associated with attention or empathy function differently for an expert practitioner compared with a novice practitioner when they focus their attention or cultivate compassion during meditation.” Lutz describes the EEG facility across the hall as a modern-day meditation cave, and indeed, it’s dark and black and quiet. When the EEG net is attached to someone’s head, it measures the electrophysiological activity in her brain.

Lutz and the team recently used EEG to study meditators before and after three months of silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts. Then, back in Wisconsin, they tracked novice meditators’ brain activity in the same way. “We found that the long periods of meditation had positive effects on several indicators of attention—above and beyond the increases that would result from simply becoming habituated to any task.” In other words, there were demonstrable long-term effects on the practitioners’ ability to attend to what they are doing in the moment.

Lutz offers an overview of the spectrum of research at the center. “One type of research aims to understand the brain mechanisms that underlie meditation states, and the long-term impact of meditation training on brain and behavior. This is part of the emerging field of contemplative neuroscience. The second type uses meditation practice as a tool for neuroscience to address novel questions about the mind and its functions. For instance, how much can you train compassion? Can you reduce mind-wandering through training? Finally, we study clinical interventions like Mindfulness- Based Stress Reduction or yogic breathing for novices to see how such training might be applied in settings like schools and hospitals to develop well-being and positive human qualities.”

Another scientist whose focus is basic meditation research is Daniel Levinson, a graduate student doing work on mind wandering. According to studies that interrupt people during the day to ask what they’re thinking, Levinson says, mind wandering accompanies about half of waking life. Does this wandering come at a cost? Some researchers argue wandering doesn’t use up mental energy, because it seems to happen without effort. His research challenges that assumption because it shows that participants devoted valuable mental energy to wandering when given an opportunity to do so, but also were able to reduce wandering when their attention was directed to immediate perceptual experience. “A wandering mind is not a free mind,” he says, “if you’re wandering through tomorrow’s plans and future goals when you meant to pay attention to the experience at hand—a game with your child or a run in the park.”

Levinson thinks a healthy mind may be one that balances its use of mental resources. “Mind wandering can provide the opportunity to envision your future, which could perhaps lead to clarity and perspective,” he says, “and yet a healthy reprieve from overthinking can free your mind to enjoy the life right in front of you. We may also tend to let our mind wander when our mental energy has been depleted, but resting a wandering mind, through a meditative discipline perhaps, may more effectively restore our mental resources.”

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