Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years, and has widely been known as a successful relaxant and treatment for stress. According to researchers, it’s now also a proven way to process more memories and emotions. A collaborative effort of researchers from Norway and Australia published their most recent findings in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, which reveals that meditation supplies a vaster amount of benefits than originally thought.

A team of researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), the University of Oslo, and the University of Sydney are trying to sort the different forms of meditation and the benefits each one yields, such as mindfulness, Zen, Acem, meditation drumming, Chakra, Buddhist, and transcendental meditation.

"No one knows how the brain works when you meditate. That is why I'd like to study it," said Jian Xu, a physician at St. Olavs Hospital in Trondheim, Norway and researcher at the Department of Circulation and Medical Imaging at NTNU, in a press release.

Each type of meditation can be divided into two main groups: concentrative meditation, which is when the person focuses attention on his or her breathing, specific thoughts, while suppressing other thoughts; and nondirective meditation, during which the person doesn’t focus on his or her breathing or a sound, and allows the mind to wander.

"I was surprised that the activity of the brain was greatest when the person's thoughts wandered freely on their own, rather than when the brain worked to be more strongly focused," said Xu. "When the subjects stopped doing a specific task and were not really doing anything special, there was an increase in activity in the area of the brain where we process thoughts and feelings. It is described as a kind of resting network. And it was this area that was most active during nondirective meditation."

Researchers looked at the brain activity with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of 14 people who had extensive experience with the Norwegian technique, Acem meditation, a well-known nondirective form of meditation. Both concentrative meditation and nondirective meditation were observed in the participants. During nondirective meditation, researchers found a higher level of activity in the part of the brain dedicated to processing inward thoughts and feelings, as opposed to concentrative meditation, which showed the same activity as a relaxed non-meditative brain state.  

"This area of the brain has its highest activity when we rest. It represents a kind of basic operating system, a resting network that takes over when external tasks do not require our attention. It is remarkable that a mental task like nondirective meditation results in even higher activity in this network than regular rest," said Svend Davanger, co-author of the study, and a neuroscientist at the University of Oslo.

The area of the brain nondirective meditation engages is the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the inward and self-assessing portion of the brain that constantly references back to the meditator. This part of the brain gives perspective with past experiences, memories, and the feelings related to them. It engages the most when a person is thinking about their future, engaging in social interactions, inferring another person's state of mind, or feeling empathy.

"Meditation is an activity that is practiced by millions of people. It is important that we find out how this really works. In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in international research on meditation. Several universities in the U.S. spend a great deal of money to research in the field. So I think it is important that we are also active," says Davanger.

Source: Xu J, Vik  A, Groote I, et al. Nondirective meditation activates default mode network and areas associated with memory retrieval and emotional processing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2014.