Hack Self-Doubt with Meditation

Depression and anxiety are linked to circuitry in the brain involved in self-reflection, which tends to be the mind’s default mode.

When scientists began strapping Buddhist monks to brain scanning machines, they realized that meditation practice quiets those thoughts, and may help people distance themselves from self-negativity.

The brain’s default mode is busy

When scientists first began scanning brains, they saw the mind engages in all kinds of activity even when subjects lay quietly, still and awake. Our personal experience can attest to this. The mind is always thinking, from planning dinner to remembering a regret to fantasizing about the future.

The baseline activity of the brain is its default node, and scientists called the areas of the brain involved the default mode network (DMN).

The DMN is the seat of the self. It’s where the person thinks about herself, for better or worse. Researchers have since linked the DMN to everything from daydreaming to creativity to depression, as The Cut reports.

Whether or not your default activity is helpful or harmful depends on where your mind automatically tends to go, says Scott Barry Kaufman, the scientific director at the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania.

In a way, the DMN is like a scout, ranging about for prospective futures. Depending on the person, their history, and their biological dispositions, that prospection could tilt toward worrying or hoping. As psychologists have contended for decades, daydreaming itself has at least three different flavors: positive constructive daydreaming, which has lots of playful, wishful imagery and plan-making thoughts; guilty-dysphoric daydreaming, which has lots of anguish and obsessive fantasies; and poor attentional control, where it’s hard to concentrate on anything. 

A person’s perception of herself arises from the DMN, and people with depression often suffer from self-defeat, shame, or guilt.

The DMN switches on when the brain is not using pathways involved in doing tasks. Practicing mindfulness meditation reduces DMN activity, and practicing consistently over time changes the DMN state, bringing the person more into the present moment, more often.

How to change the brain

Meditation changes the brain, studies are showing. The Dalai Lama helped recruit veteran meditators for one brain scan study, which showed that practitioners with tens of thousands of meditation practice under their belts had altered the function and structure of their brains.

Brain scans showed the brain produced increased gamma waves among experienced meditators who engaged in a compassion meditation. Gamma waves are indicative of plasticity, or in other words, resilience, according to Richard Davidson, a neuroscientists who founded the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.

According to Yi-Yuan Tang, a neuroscientist at Texas Tech, consistent meditation practice improves emotional control and focus.

What is meditation?

Davidson’s team focused on two main meditation techniques commonly practiced by Buddhists, which are often practiced together. The first is focused attention, which means keeping the awareness fixed on a single object. Often, practitioners focus on breath.

In this technique, thoughts arise, but the practitioner neither follows them nor pushes them away. Rather, the practitioner continuously brings the attention back to the breath, focusing on one place, such as the nostrils.

The researchers called the second technique “open monitoring.” After achieving a calm state of mind from concentrating on the breath, the practitioner releases the effort of maintaining attention, and non-reactively observes moment-to-moment experience, including external things like sounds, or internal thoughts and emotions as they arise and dissolve.

Given how inexpensive and non-invasive it is to sit quietly and concentrate on breathing, meditation offers an easy way to address depression and anxiety. Research has shown it has a bunch of other benefits, too, from enhancing immunity to improving memory. Researchers found it makes us nicer, too, so a little more meditation in the world can’t hurt.