Can Meditation Cure the Monkey Mind?

December 7, 2016
Arnaud Delorme, IONS Scientist

Have you ever had the experience of your mind ceasing to spin during meditation?

Anecdotal evidence holds that meditators experience moments where it feels as if the mind simply stops, and is replaced by spaciousness, pure awareness, or some other ineffable experience. Despite hundreds of studies on meditation, previous research has not focused on whether or not meditation really helps with “monkey mind” (a term used by Buddhist scholars to describe the relentless spinning mind).

Until now.

A new study conducted by IONS shows evidence that experienced meditators have less monkey mind than novice meditators.  My PhD student, Tracy Brandmeyer, traveled to the Meditation Research Institute (MRI) in Rishikesh, India to collect data. The research was subsequently published in the November issue of the German scientific journal Experimental Brain Research (read the full article: Reduced mind wandering in experienced meditators and associated EEG correlates).

In our experiment, we asked 12 novice and 12 expert meditators to meditate. We then gently interrupted them every two minutes to ask about the depth of their meditation, and the degree to which their mind wandered. They did not have to open their eyes, but simply pressed keys on a keypad on their lap to indicate their choice.

The results showed that experienced meditators reported having less monkey mind than novice meditators. We also revealed specific brainwave in the theta frequency band were present in experienced meditators, but not in novices.

While we are happy to be the first to show this phenomenon, the science is far from complete. A single isolated experiment is not enough to show conclusively that a phenomenon is real, and we look forward to other researchers independently reproducing the study (and hopefully our results). Additionally, this study focused on meditators in a specific tradition (mantra repetition in the Himalayan tradition); it remains to be shown if this effect is present for other traditions. Lastly, expert meditators may self-select to continue practicing meditation, and may have less monkey mind to begin with. In other words, it is possible that among all the novices, the only ones that will stick with their practice and become expert meditators are those who begin with less monkey mind.

Longitudinal studies will be necessary to demonstrate this more fully, and while we do not have plans to conduct such research, we hope our pioneering methods will inspire our colleagues to do so.

My own research will continue in a new but related direction, and in a future study I hope to show that when novice meditators try to produce the same brainwave as expert meditators, they decrease their monkey mind tendencies. For this, we will be using neurofeedback and double blind protocol similar to the ones used in clinical testing.

Arnaud Delorme, PhD, is a CNRS principal investigator in Toulouse, France, a faculty at the University of San Diego California, and a consulting research scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences. He is a long term Zen meditator, and has taught in India on the neural correlates of conscious experience in a Master's degree program for the Birla Institute of Technology.

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