How The Brain Works During The Two Main Types of Meditation

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During meditation the mind may wander, but is that necessarily a bad thing?

A new study on what happens in the brain when you meditate finds that more thoughts and emotions may be processed in ‘non-directive’ forms of meditation.

All the different types of meditation can be split into two main types:

  • In non-directive types of meditation, people focus on their breathing or a sound, but also allow their mind to wander where it will.
  • In concentrative types of meditation, people try to focus closely on their breath, or something else, in order to suppress other thoughts and feelings they experience.

To examine the differences, a Norwegian study had some meditators practising concentrative meditation and others non-directive meditation, while their brains were scanned (Xu et al., 2014).

One of the study’s authors, Svend Davanger, explained the results:

“The study indicates that nondirective meditation allows for more room to process memories and emotions than during concentrated meditation.”

“This area of the brain has its highest activity when we rest.

It represents a kind of basic operating system, a resting network that takes over when external tasks do not require our attention.

It is remarkable that a mental task like nondirective meditation results in even higher activity in this network than regular rest.”

When the experienced meditators practised a directive meditation technique — focusing on one thing to the exclusion of all else — the activity in their brains was similar to when they were simply resting without meditating.

Is mind wandering bad for you?

A complex issue at the heart of this study is whether mind wandering in meditation is good for you or not.

Some types of directive meditation, like mindfulness, see mind wandering as something to be avoided; whereas psychologists think mind wandering may be beneficial, even necessary.

The study’s authors point out that the…

“…types of meditation that allow spontaneous thoughts, images, sensations, memories, and emotions to emerge and pass freely without actively controlling or pursuing them, over time may reduce stress by increasing awareness and acceptance of emotionally charged experiences.

“…mind wandering and activation of the default mode network in general may serve introspective and adaptive functions beyond rumination and daydreaming.

Potentially useful functions would include mental simulations, using autobiographical memory retrieval to envision the future and conceiving the perspective of others.”  (Xu et al., 2014).

→ Find out more about the benefits of meditation.

Image credit: Moyan Brenn

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 20 May 2014

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