Shaping Your Meditation Through Brain Science
Understanding the differences between focused-attention and open-monitoring meditation forms
The Burning Monk
It’s Tuesday, June 11, 1963, and Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức steps out of a car into the middle of a Saigon intersection. He is followed by 350 Buddhist monks and nuns, all marching to end their persecution by Vietnam’s government. A monk places a cushion in the middle of the intersection.
Đức sits on the cushion and begins to meditate. Another monk takes a gas can from the car and delicately empties it onto Đức. Đức recites a short prayer, lights a match, and drops it on himself. He continues to meditate. Flames engulf his body. Bystanders scream and sob, but Đức sits calmly. Only after ten minutes of burning does his body finally collapse from his seated position.
The scene was captured by Malcolm W. Browne in a photograph that won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting and became one of the most influential news photos in history.
How did Đức resist the urge to flail and scream and try to extinguish himself? How can someone sit calmly while their flesh burns? An ordained monk since the age of 20, Đức had practiced meditation for most of his life. Many thousands of hours of meditation had rewired the neurons in his brain, granting him the ability to stay focused and sit still amidst great pain.
Although I meditate for modest reasons, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued by the mythical powers of Đức and other monks. As a scientist, I’m driven to understand what is happening in my brain while I meditate, as well as what happened in Đức’s brain that bestowed him these powers.
What I’ve learned is that different meditations change your brain in markedly different ways and that, through an understanding of these differences, you can pick the meditation style that has the benefits you most desire.
To Focus or Not to Focus
Meditation practices tend to have one of two main goals: focus on a single point, or focus on nothing.
Focused-attention meditators concentrate on a single object. Hare Krishna meditators focus on the chanting of their mantra, while mindfulness meditators place their focus on the breath. But the object of focus can be anything: the ringing of a Tibetan singing bowl, visual imagery — imagine an orb of light floating in front of you — or points on the body — keep your focus on your third eye, the point in the center of your forehead. Each of these meditations asks the same thing: focus on something and do not allow other thoughts or sensations to distract you.
Open-monitoring meditators have no focal point, but instead, try to clear their mind. In practices such as Vipassanā and Zazen, all sensations in the body are held equally. That is, the meditator is aware of the sensations in their body, but does not react or attach to any particular sensation. The realization of pain in the knee is merely a realization and needs no response. Another flavor of open-monitoring, Sahaja meditation, avoids any acknowledgment of sensations and emphasizes mental silence. Without trying, without effort, notice the mental silence … if a thought does pop into your head, let it rise and fall away.
Not all meditations fall squarely into one of these camps, and some practices move fluidly between the two. For instance, a mindfulness meditator initially focuses on their breath but may transition into an open-monitoring meditation by releasing focus from the breath and gradually becoming mindful of all sounds, sensations, and thoughts.
The scientific community uses these two groupings because each activates different brain areas and each results in different benefits and changes.
So which should you practice? Let’s explore these differences and find, through our knowledge of neuroscience, which technique is for you.
Focused-attention meditations require continuous concentration and attention. For a new meditator, focused-attention meditations tend to be a cycle of setting the attention on the focus point, noticing that the attention has drifted — oops, how long have I been thinking about my to-do list? — and then returning to the focus point. As the meditator becomes more practiced, distractions become less frequent and refocusing becomes more effortless. What does this mean for your brain?
You’ve probably heard that the brain, like a muscle, gets stronger with practice. But this analogy might be more fitting than you realize — the brain, like a muscle, actually gets bigger. Yes, we can point to parts of your brain that physically grow in size from use. If I hand you the autopsied brains of a piano player and a non-piano player, you could tell me who is who just by looking at the part of the brain that sends commands to the fingers. Hours and hours of practice cause the finger areas of the piano player’s brain to grow. The same is true of focused-attention meditators — except it isn’t the area in charge of the fingers, but the areas involved in attention that grow.
We can also use brain imaging to look at how much blood is flowing to particular parts of the brain (a proxy for understanding how much activity is happening in that brain region), and we see more blood flowing to the attention centers of the brain when an experienced meditator is practicing mindfulness meditation than when a novice is first learning. And this makes sense: if you have been practicing a meditation that primarily asks you to hold your attention on a single point, your brain is going to devote more energy to its attention networks. This also is the case for the piano player. Whether you’re practicing piano or staying focused, your brain gives the necessary areas more territory and more energy.
Counterintuitively, after the brain has given more and more energy to the exercised areas, it starts to give less and less. As you move from novice to experienced, the attention (or finger) networks work harder and harder, but as you then move from experienced to expert, those networks get more efficient and don’t have to work as hard. They actually require less energy. Focused-attention meditation helps you stay focused and to spend less effort doing so.
What good are these brain changes? What do we gain from a more powerful attention network? Richard Davidson’s lab at the University of Wisconsin performed a brain imaging study that shows how these networks allow focused-attention meditators to stay calm and focused, even in frightening circumstances.
Picture yourself lying down in a brain imaging machine at the University of Wisconsin, peacefully meditating for the sake of science, when suddenly — AHHHHH — a scream that may as well be from Hitchcock’s Psycho is played over the loudspeakers.
If you’re new to meditation, the machine shows blood rushing to your emotional centers — you’ve broken your focus and responded strongly to the woman’s scream. And who could blame you?
But if you’re an experienced meditator, you’ve kept your focus on your breath and the machine detects a much lower emotional response. By practicing focused-attention meditation and strengthening your attention networks, you’re able to keep your attention on your breath instead of becoming distracted by the scream.
Let’s remember that this study only shows that you can stay focused while you’re meditating, and says nothing about your focus once you’ve left the meditation mat. Does practicing focused-attention meditation lead to lasting brain changes that help you stay focused even when you’re not meditating?
To find out, scientists created another experiment, in which they asked participants tricky perceptual questions while showing them gruesome photos of severed heads, dismembered hands, and deformed babies. (Yeah, I avoided looking at some of the figures in that article.)
Dr. Bizarro (no joke, that’s really her name) and colleagues were asking participants to judge if arrows on opposite sides of the photos were pointing in the same direction or not, noting that the photo itself should be ignored—easier said than done when the photos are so repulsive. Half of the participants had practiced focused-attention meditation for six weeks while the other half had never meditated. As expected, the focused-attention group did a lot better at ignoring the photos and answering the question correctly than the group that did not meditate. So focused-attention meditation leads to long-term changes that affect your behavior.
Will you ever have to answer pointless questions while averting your eyes from gruesome photographs? Not unless you find yourself in the Saw films. But you may have to know which way to steer your car while avoiding an accident in front of you. Or catch a falling lamp while someone yells your name. Or give a presentation in front of an intimidating audience. Will you be distracted by the intense surroundings, or will you be able to stay focused on the task at hand? Being practiced in focused-attention meditation could help you perform well on these tasks despite the emotional disturbances.
Is focused-attention meditation for you? If you find yourself getting distracted when trying to read, have a conversation, or attend a lecture, remember that this doesn’t have to be a fact of life. You can exercise the attention centers of your brain just like you can exercise a muscle. Sit down, focus your attention on your breath, and when you do notice that you’ve started thinking about something other than your breath, simply return your focus to your breath and resist the urge to get frustrated by the distraction.
But what if instead of focusing on your breath, you try to focus on nothing? What happens in your brain when you practice Zen meditation, noticing all sensations equally and holding your attention on nothing?
Neuroscientists have found that the changes from this type of meditation are very different than the changes resulting from focused-attention meditation. Whereas focused-attention meditations help strengthen attention networks in your brain, open-monitoring meditations help strengthen networks that allow you to avoid becoming too focused on one thing.
One of the changes that occurs when you practice open-monitoring meditation is a reduction of something called the attentional blink.
The attentional blink is a phenomenon in which one stimulus causes you to be blind to another that follows shortly afterward. For instance, you are watching a basketball game, and at the very moment that the losing team scores a game-winning buzzer-beater, your dog jumps up and grabs your dinner. All your attention was on the game and you were blind to the dog’s crime, even though it happened right in front of you. It’s hard to believe you’d miss something like this, but your brain is so focused on the game that it doesn’t have the resources to notice anything else.
The following animation shows how neuroscientists test the phenomenon of the attentional blink. It’s comprised of eight trials. Each time you see “Ready?”, a new string of letters will appear. For each string of letters, answer these two questions: 1) what letter appears in white, and 2) does the letter X appear?
How often did the letter X appear? In this animation, it actually appears in each trial. Did you find it each time or just some of the time? Most people are good at identifying the white letter and can notice the X if it appears far from the white letter, but they fail to notice the X if it shows up shortly after the white letter.
This is because their attention is on the white letter and, even after that letter has come and gone, they do not have the attentional capacity to notice the X. The length of time your attention is blinded by the white letter can vary depending on things like how tired, motivated, or stressed you are.
And, as it turns out, by how much open-monitoring meditation you’ve practiced.
Researchers found that people who practice open-monitoring meditations are blinded by the white letter for a shorter amount of time than people who do not practice open-monitoring meditation. That is, while a nonmeditator is still processing the white letter that they just saw, the meditator has already moved on and is ready for the X to appear.
Why would open-monitoring meditation stop you from getting sucked into one thing and missing another? Because that’s a large part of what open-monitoring meditation is. Do not focus on any one sensation, but instead hold all sensations equally. Notice thoughts, but do not dwell on them. Practicing this absence of focus during your meditation results in effects off the mat as well, allowing you to not become consumed by any one thing. This could mean you are not so fully engaged in the buzzer-beater that you miss your dog stealing your dinner, or it could mean that you are not so engaged in reading the next street sign that you miss the skunk crossing in front of your car.
Notice that the focused-attention meditators did well on Dr. Bizarro’s gruesome photo task because they needed to stay focused on the arrows and to not get distracted by the photos. But the open-monitoring meditators did well on the attentional blink task because they needed to process multiple things at once and not focus too much on any one thing.
Further Differences in Meditator Types
Practicing open-monitoring meditation does more than just reduce your attentional blink.
To see how, we’ll return to Richard Davidson’s lab at the University of Wisconsin for another horror movie-inspired experiment. Subjects have seen jump scares and emotionally disturbing photos, now it’s time for some pain. The researchers did a simple experiment: put a burning hot (120°F) metal rod on your arm and ask you 1) how intense it feels and 2) how unpleasant it feels. They did this experiment with nonmeditators, focused-attention meditators, and open-monitoring meditators.
To understand the result of this experiment, it’s important to understand the difference between the two questions the researchers asked. The first question, regarding the intensity of the heat, asks “how hot did the rod feel?” The second question, regarding unpleasantness, asks “how much did the rod bother you?” It is a subtle but important difference. The researchers found that open-monitoring meditators reported the rod as feeling just as hot as the other participants, but reported being less bothered by the heat of the rod.
Focused-attention meditators were just as bothered by the heat as the participants who did not meditate. Their practice is about staying focused on a point, which did not help them deal with the pain. But the open-monitoring meditators, whose practice asks them to not dwell on any sensation, did not care much about the pain.
You might be saying, “well that’s a very interesting study, but why just ask them how they feel? Where are the brain scans? Time to heat up the iron again.” And that’s just what these researchers did. A few years after this paper was published, the same group redid this experiment with brain imaging. At the price of a few more burned arms and a functional MRI machine, they were able to see what was happening in the brain that leads to this difference in pain perception.
Their first finding has to do with brain activity right before the pain — that moment when the researcher is reaching towards you with the hot iron. The amygdala, an area closely tied to fear and anxiety, had much less activity during this anticipatory period for open-monitoring meditators. These meditators, who had been following instructions in their meditations such as “stay open and accepting to all sensations,” did not get worried about the imminent pain. They stayed open and accepting, even to the pain they knew was coming — and this was linked to lower activation of the amygdala.
Then, during the pain, researchers saw that the open-monitoring meditators had high activity in their “salience network,” a network responsible for letting the rest of the brain know what sensations are important. The researchers hypothesize that the brains of these subjects were fighting against their natural response to the pain: while a regular brain would automatically tag this sensation as important (and thus not need to activate their salience network much), the open-monitoring meditators’ salience networks were fighting hard to not give too much importance to the painful stimulus (hence the higher activation in the salience network). The nonmeditators and the focused-attention meditators could not stop their brains from latching onto the painful sensation, leading them to be more bothered by the pain.
So, practicing open-monitoring meditation makes you more tolerant to pain in two ways: 1) you’ve practiced being open to all sensations and thus are not anxious when you know pain is coming, and 2) you’ve practiced not focusing on any single sensation and can stop your natural response of becoming absorbed by the pain. As shown in the image above, we see these changes as lower amygdala activity when anticipating pain and higher salience network activity (specifically in the anterior midcingulate cortex) when experiencing pain.
Thích Quảng Đức was able to meditate with composure while engulfed in flames because of years of practicing Zen meditation. This open-monitoring practice allowed him to stay calm in the face of the pain he was about to endure and then, once he was on fire, it stopped his mind from engaging with the sensation despite his pain receptors firing nonstop.
The Relevance to Less Dramatic Situations
Being able to increase your pain tolerance is pretty cool, especially when it’s simply from meditating. But what’s more relevant to many people, especially in our current age, is being able to increase your tolerance to mental pain.
About one in every five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. And one in every ten U.S. youth suffers from depression. If open-monitoring meditation can make you more tolerant to physical pain, can it also strengthen your mental fortitude?
A study of 84 patients suffering from depression showed how open-monitoring meditation can be just as effective as antidepressant medications. The 84 patients had all been on antidepressants for eight months following a depressive episode. After the eight months of medication, they were split into three groups: one group continued the antidepressants, another group thought they were continuing their antidepressants but were given sugar pills instead, and a third group practiced open-monitoring meditation and took no medication.
The group that was taking the sugar pill placebos had many more depressive relapses than the group taking antidepressants. And the meditators? They did just as well as the medicated group. Open-monitoring meditation stopped depressive relapses to the same degree that antidepressants did. This research shows that people with depression have another option for helping themselves to avoid relapse — an option free of side effects and price tags.
Why would open-monitoring meditation help people who have depression? To find out, the researchers used standardized questionnaires to look for differences in thought patterns between the meditators, the medicators, and the placebo-takers. They found four significant changes in participants: 1) an increase in approaching experiences without judgment, 2) an increase in accepting feelings as only passing events in the mind, 3) a decrease in identifying personally with thoughts and feelings, and 4) a decrease in dwelling on negative feelings and experiences. The fourth change was shared with the medicated group, but the other three were unique to the meditators.
Similar research has found that open-monitoring meditations help people who suffer from anxiety, stress, and insomnia as well. The location of action in the brain for all of these benefits is likely the amygdala (think: fear, anxiety, stress). Similar to the increase in the size of attentional areas of a focused-attention meditator’s brain, we see a decrease in the size of the amygdala in the brain of an open-monitoring meditator. And researchers found that the smaller the amygdala gets, the less stress these meditators experience.
Do not let this amazing fact get lost on you: simply by sitting down and meditating, you are sculpting the architecture of your brain. You are making physical changes to your own body. You cannot sit down and will your bicep to grow in size, but you can do so to parts of your brain.
As you can see, there are many reasons to practice open-monitoring meditation. Do you want to have a more broad awareness, no longer missing out on the big picture because you’re too focused on a single stimulus? Or perhaps you’d like to increase your pain tolerance? Or maybe you want to increase your fortitude, and avoid feeling down and depressed? It can be as simple as sitting down, clearing your mind, and watching your thoughts float away.
There are many various open-monitoring meditations, each with its own specific teachings and practices. And there are many gurus who can teach you wisdom from their years of experience. That said, here are some basic instructions for practicing a generic open-monitoring meditation:
- Begin by focusing on your breath (yes, this is focused-attention monitoring — it’s a great way to begin any meditation).
- Once you feel settled, gradually let go of the focus and allow your breath to become an unconscious process again.
- If a thought pops up (as it surely will), acknowledge it but do not engage with it. If you hear something around you, do the same — there’s no point in trying to deny that you heard something, but you also do not need to spend time or energy on it.
- Treat any emotion or physical sensation the same way you treat these thoughts and sounds: with openness but without engagement.
- If you do realize you have engaged with a thought, it is important that you do not allow yourself to get frustrated by this. Simply smile, glad to have realized this, and then let go of your focus on that object.
Choose Either or Both
You now have the beginning tools to practice either a focused-attention meditation or an open-monitoring meditation, as well as knowledge of how the two types can change your brain in different ways. Will you choose to grow and strengthen your attention networks, becoming a master of discipline with focus so unbreakable that nothing can distract you? Or would you rather erode your fear and anxiety, becoming someone who can attend to many things at once and who feels no pain? Which superpower do you choose?
Or would you like both? Many meditators practice focused-attention meditation for the first half of their practice before transitioning into open-monitoring for the second half, opting to have the benefits of both types.
Whichever you choose, you are on your way to some amazing brain changes. But take this one piece of advice: start today.
- Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density by Britta Hölzelab et al. at Harvard Medical School
- Neural Correlates of Attentional Expertise in Long-Term Meditation Practitioners by J. A. Brefczynski-Lewis et al. at the University of Wisconsin
- The Improvement of Emotion and Attention Regulation After a 6-Week Training of Focused Meditation: A Randomized Controlled Trial by Carolina B. Menezes et al. at the University of Rio Grande do Sul
- Mental Training Affects Distribution of Limited Brain Resources by Heleen A. Slagter et al. at the University of Wisconsin
- Differential Effects on Pain Intensity and Unpleasantness of Two Meditation Practices by David M. Perlman et al. at the University of Wisconsin
- Altered Anterior Insula Activation During Anticipation and Experience of Painful Stimuli in Expert Meditators by Antoine Lutz et al. at the University of Wisconsin
- Antidepressant Monotherapy vs Sequential Pharmacotherapy and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, or Placebo, for Relapse Prophylaxis in Recurrent Depression by Zindel V. Segal et al. at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto
- Treatment-Specific Changes in Decentering Following Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Versus Antidepressant Medication or Placebo for Prevention of Depressive Relapse by Peter J. Bieling et al. at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto
- Stress Reduction Correlates With Structural Changes in the Amygdala by Britta Hölzelab et al. at Harvard Medical School