One of the most common experiences that people encounter during the practice of meditation is the tendency for the mind to wander. It can be especially noticeable when we meditate with an object of meditative focus (i.e. the breath or a mantra) and our mind drifts to the ongoing thoughts and ideas that surface. Mind wandering goes by many names including daydreaming or spontaneous thought, and generally occurs when the demands on our attention are quite low, such as during the practice of meditation, reading, or driving. IONS scientist Dr. Arnaud Delorme and Dr. Tracy Brandmeyer explored the nature of the wandering mind during meditation in their recent publication, When the Meditating Mind Wanders, and what happens when the wandering mind goes rogue.
Meditation and Mind Wandering
Meditation practice consists of “engaging in mental exercise (such as concentration on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness.” Thoughts arising in consciousness during meditation are treated differently based on the specific meditation tradition. Some traditions instruct practitioners to label their thoughts, whereas others suggest ignoring them and viewing them as peripheral to the practice, or as a useful mechanism of release. The fact is that thoughts and sensations are the only objective content of consciousness during meditation. Giving thoughts one’s focused attention may serve to reinforce them.. As the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti said, “Meditation is to be aware of every thought and of every feeling, never to say it is right or wrong, but just to watch it and move with it. In that watching, you begin to understand the whole movement of thought and feeling. And out of this awareness comes silence.”
The Origin of Thoughts: Content and the Awareness of It
Where and why do thoughts arise? Thoughts arise in the consciousness of the individual that experiences them, and it is generally accepted within the neuroscientific community that their content arises from activity in the brain. Research conducted by Benjamin Libet, a pioneering scientist in the field of human consciousness, showed that the activity in our brain is linked to the content of the thought, and could be recorded before we even become conscious of that thought. Therefore, the degree to which we have control over the nature, content, and timing of thoughts that arise in our consciousness has been, and still is, the subject of intense debate.
In this literature review, When the Meditating Mind Wanders, Delorme and Brandmeyer hypothesized that the attention and emotional intensity experienced and associated with a given thought determines the degree to which the thought is reinforced. Research has shown that the emotional intensity of a thought can determine whether it would also show up in dreams as well as whether it would be recalled the following day.
This explains why people experiencing depression may find it exceptionally challenging to free themselves from ruminative patterns of thinking, despite a strong intention to do so. The strong negative emotions associated with their thoughts would continually reinforce them in a feedback loop. This is also the reason why methods such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy or acceptance commitment therapy may help in these cases; by reframing the negative thoughts or training oneself to identify and react less strongly to them, they lose some of the intensity and “attention-grabbing power.” This process may directly disrupt the feedback loops of negative thoughts.
Previous findings on mind wandering and meditation show that meditation may help decrease the frequency of mind wandering. Therefore, it would benefit future research on meditation to assess the function and quality of meditation, not only based on its depth, but also its impact on the attention-grabbing power of mind wandering during meditation. Over time, meditation may help dampen the attention-grabbing power of these thoughts both during practice and in daily life, which may consequently help deepen one’s meditation practice. However, when meditators fail to remain equanimous, the effects of these thoughts may be detrimental. Their paper discusses how this hypothesis may help guide future research on meditation.