The Mindful Brain
Mindfulness is that unique human capacity to notice those moments when the mind is travelling and to gently bring it back to focus. You might have probably experienced this sort of exercise of phrasing during yoga classes or mindfulness meditation sessions based on the breath.
But do you know what actually happens in your brain during these exercises? When the mind is free to wander the Default Mode Network (DMN) is activated, which in neuroscience is used to describe that marvellous human capacity to think about the future or the past despite being in the present moment; basically time-travelling.
It has been studied that when you invite the mind to focus on the breath during meditations sessions for example, it is gradually activated a part of the brain called Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex (DLPFC). Differently from the DMN, the development of DLPFC is what distinct us from animals. For instance, the connection between the DLPFC and the DMN was object of sever studies on the neuronal activities and tested through MRI on different groups of people with mind at rest and during meditation sessions. These studies proved that the cerebral activities of expert meditators is largely less pronounced in the DMN, meaning that meditation reduces the natural mind-travelling and improves concentration and focus for longer times. The good news is that this capacity like a muscle, can be trained.
Experienced meditators demonstrate decreased DMN activation during meditation. Brain activation in meditators > controls is shown, collapsed across all meditations (relative to baseline). (A and B) Activations in the left mPFC and PCC. (C and D) Average percent signal change (± SD) during individual meditation conditions in the mPFC and PCC, respectively: Choiceless Awareness (green bars), Loving-Kindness (red), and Concentration (blue) meditations. Note that decreased activation in PCC in meditators is common across different meditation types. n = 12 per group.
From Brewer et al (2011), PNAS December 13, 2011 108 (50) 20254-20259; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1112029108