Focused Attention Meditation Reduces Mind-Wandering

by Carrie Heeter, PhD, Professor of Media and Information
May 25, 2017

As a student, practitioner, designer, and researcher of meditation, I am interested in scientific findings about meditation and the curious methods scientists use to arrive at those findings.

In this blog I write about a recent neuroimaging (fMRI) brain scan study of the relationships between mind-wandering and focused attention meditation.

A different team of neuroscientists explored underlying neural circuitry of two distinct forms of meditation —  Focused Attention (FA) meditation, on a specific, chosen object versus Open Monitoring (OM) meditation, where attention focuses on the experience from moment to moment. (Lutz et al., 2008).

Research Questions

Scheibner and colleagues (2017) wondered whether Focused Attention meditation when the object of attention was internal (in this study, breath) had the same or different effects on mind-wandering as when the object of attention was external (in this study, sound).

Mind-wandering (thinking about anything other than present moment experiences) is known as the Default Mode neural Network (DMN).  Mind-wandering is what human minds tend to do in a resting state, and also throughout the rest of life.  For the most part, ruminating about the past and worrying about the future are not beneficial to health, well-being, or happiness.


  • Scheibner’s team found doing a focused attention meditation was associated with significant reductions in activity in the parts of the brain involved in DMN during the meditation.
  • The difference was significant for both internal and external meditation objects.
  • For one DMN brain region (the posterior cingulate cortex), there was stronger deactivation with internal meditation compared to external.
  • In other research, posterior cingulate cortex deactivation was associated with subjective experiences of “undistracted awareness” and “effortless doing”. Thus, internal focused attention meditation resulted in more of this than did external focused attention meditation.

So, yay meditation!  And yay internal meditation objects!

Let’s look at how they did the research.

20 “meditation-naive” adult participants were recruited.

Two Focused Attention meditations were planned.  The internal meditation focused attention on breathing.  The external meditation focused attention on sound. Specifically, on a repeating cycle of two violin notes — the first held for 2 seconds, the second held for three seconds, at “a major third” distance.

Internal (breath) or External (violin, specifically one note for 3 seconds and another note for 2 seconds, repeated)

One internal meditation object (breath) and one external meditation (sound)

Experiments try to control for extraneous factors that might influence results in unknown yet systematic ways.  So these researchers decided to ask the participants to play the audio loop of the repeating violin notes when they did the breath meditation as well as when they did the sound meditation. For the breath meditation, participants ignore the sound of the violin and instead pay attention to their breath.  And for the sound meditation, they ignore their breath (not a specific instruction, I’m just drawing a parallel here) and pay attention to the violin sound.

The researchers note that the two-note violin loop “results in a cycle frequency of 0.2 Hz) which equates with breathing frequency at rest.”

Carrie Commentary

It is easy to criticize the choices researchers make.  But it is also reasonable to do so.

First, individuals have unique breath rates and breathing patterns.  0.2 Hz might be an average breath cycle, but almost certainly did not match many or even any of the 20 participants’ individual breath rates.

It strikes me that having a 0.2Hz rhythmic cycle of sound playing during a breath meditation would impact breath rate and also result in more of a mixed internal/external meditation where the breath and the rhythm of the sound intermingle as meditation object.

I happen to have a personal extreme dislike of the sound of a violin.  So for me, both meditation experiences would have been highly agitating.

Brain Imaging Process

fMRI brain scans measured a sequence of four focused attention meditation practices

With brain imaging research, you want to know exactly what the brain is doing relative to the brain images you are recording.  The researchers devised an interesting approach to achieve this goal.  Participants were initially trained to do the two meditations. Then they practiced each meditation on their own at home for 20 minutes per day for 4 days. On day 6 they returned to the laboratory to do both meditations twice while their brain activity was recorded.

Specifically, they did either internal or external for 14 minutes, then switched to the other meditation for 14 minutes. Then they did either the internal or external meditation for 7 minutes. Then switched to the other meditation for 7 minutes.  (Order was carefully randomized.  The shorter duration of the second to meditations was to avoid fatigue.)

While they did the meditations in the laboratory their gaze was focused on a white cross on a computer screen. At pseudo-random intervals ranging from 2 to 50 seconds apart, the white cross turned to a red cross and participants answered the onscreen question: where was your mind? BREATH or DISTRACTED (or, for the violin, SOUND or DISTRACTED).

Based on the reply, the researchers classified the time right before question as either mind-wandering or focused.  In this way they could analyze just the focused brain images.

Carrie Commentary

This is quite ingenious.

28 interruptions during a 14 minute meditation also would have limited the depth of the experience.  Eyes open waiting to be interrupted also impedes pure focus on the meditation object (compared to eyes closed).

The “meditation” experiences on which the research is based are very different from the meditation experiences that I practice and study.  Do the results generalize to yoga meditations by experienced practitioners, with carefully sequenced movement and breathing and carefully chosen meditation objects?

This is the way research on meditation works.  The process is much stranger than the results.


Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(4), 163–169.
Scheibner, H. J., Bogler, C., Gleich, T., Haynes, J.-D., & Bermpohl, F. (2017). Internal and external attention and the default mode network. NeuroImage, 148, 381–389.

Breath influences Cerebralspinal Fluid flow

by Carrie Heeter
Professor of Media and Information
Michigan State University

The system of yoga and meditation that I study and practice uses attention to breath and conscious breath control to change the state of the system and focus the mind. A high speed MRI study revealed one of the powerful ways breath affects the brain.

Cerebralspinal fluid (CSF) carries immune cells throughout the brain and removes waste and toxins.

When CSF flow is impeded, the brain can become suffused with inflammatory immune cells. This process may play a key role in traumatic brain injury, auto-immune diseases like multiple sclerosis and neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

CSF flow, long believed to be influenced by heart beat, has been shown to be much more heavily impacted by breath.

Specifically, CSF flow increases during inhale and slows during exhale.

For all subjects in this high-speed MRI study, “inspiration was the dominant influence of CSF flow.” Some individuals have a stronger heart rate influence on CSF flow than others.  But for everyone, breath was the dominant influence on CSF flow.

The researchers examined three breath patterns: 1) “normal breathing”,” 2) “forced inhale” 2.5 second inhalation, 2.5 second exhalation and 3) “breath holding” 12 second breath holding (my guess is that breath was held after inhale).

They also conclude “breath holding entirely suppressed the respiratory-related component” of CSF flow.  In the figure below, the top graph is person 1, the middle graph person 5 and the bottom graph person 9. The black bars indicate the 12 second period of breath holding. The graph shows CSF flow rate.

I am not a neuroscientists, but as a student of meditation and yoga i have worked with and studied breath (including inhalation, exhalation, holds after inhale, holds after exhale, and exquisite variations on breath ratios)  for many years.  When I read the study and look at the the data (such as the figure below), it seems there is much more to be explored if we combine these high speed MRI techniques, neuroscience expertise, and yoga expertise.

High speed MRI of CSF flow during 12 second breath hold

High speed MRI of CSF flow during 12 second breath hold

Dreha-Kulaczewski, S., Joseph, A. A., Merboldt, K.-D., Ludwig, H.-C., Gärtner, J., & Frahm, J. (2015). Inspiration Is the Major Regulator of Human CSF Flow. Journal of Neuroscience, 35(6), 2485–2491.

Meditation and Compassion Fatigue for Clinical Caregivers

by Carrie Heeter, Ph.D., November 11, 2014
Professor of Media and Information, Michigan State University
Director, Mindtoon Lab

ISCS Program cover

ISCS 2014 Program

“Compassion” appears 228 times in the 120 page program for the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies, which I attended recently in Boston. Sessions related to compassion included meditation practice led by masters and presentations of research findings by top scientists from neuroscience, psychology, clinical science, the humanities, philosophy, and education.

I’ve always casually aspired to approach life with compassion and kindness, until now without ever thinking deeply about what that means.

In this blog post I explore ideas related to compassion and compassion fatigue among health care professionals inspired by three of the myriad fascinating talks. This is not the only or the most interesting takeaway from the conference, but has big societal importance and it relates to a grant proposal I’m working on.

I think of health care professionals, and especially nurses, as professionally compassionate. It was upsetting to learn that burnout and compassion fatigue are extremely common among nurses and physicians. 30% of primary care interns will leave the field within their first 5 years. 61% of palliative care clinicians experience burnout, emotional exhaustion, and depersonalization. Health care workers, administrators, and academics are aware of the extent of the problem, but I wasn’t. Continue reading

Mindfulness-based depression therapy reduces health care visits

By Carrie Heeter, Ph.D, August 23, 2014

High users of health services drive up health care costs. Individuals who are anxious and depressed often focus on and worry about physical sensations and symptoms. As a result, they may seek out health care appointments sooner and more often than necessary to maintain health.

Hospital symbolA recent 8 year retrospective analysis of health care utilization comparing high users of health services who were treated with Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and patients who received other forms of group in a Canadian hospital system found a significant reduction in health care utilization in the year following MBCT treatment (Kurdyak, Newman, and Sengal, 2014).  Specifically, the researchers found one fewer non-mental health visit per year for every two MBCT patients treated.

The researchers analyzed hospital system billing records between 2003 and 2010 and were able to identify and compare 10,633 patients of MCBT physicians and psychiatrists to 29,795 patients of non-MBCT physicians and psychiatrists.  (The non-MBCT patients would have experienced group therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), interpersonal psychotherapy, and/or psychodynamic group psychotherapy).  Among patients in the study who were high utilizers of health care, MBCT resulted in a reduction in non-mental health service utilization, and also resulted in fewer psychiatrist visits in the year following therapy. Continue reading

Powerful Mind Control Device Instantly Switches Information Processing Modalities

By Carrie Heeter, PhD, February 17, 2014

New neuroimaging research documents dramatic effects of an embedded brain controlling device: our eyes.

Neuroscientists have been examining what parts of the brain are activated when eyes are open (EO) compared to brain activation when eyes are closed (EC). It turns out that opening your eyes, even in a totally dark room, instantly changes how your brain operates.

Mind controlling eyes

Mind controlling eyes

People who meditate experience this shift when they begin a meditation by sitting comfortably and closing their eyes. Other forms of meditation, such as walking meditations, occur with eyes open. All of us have convenient access to eyes we can experiment with opening and closing while we reading this blog about the latest research. Continue reading

Studying “Presence” in Virtual Reality and in Meditation

by Carrie Heeter, February  10, 2014

In the early 1990s I designed and studied virtual reality experiences. My generation dreamed of VR experiences as real as Star Trek’s holodeck. (For newer people, think The Matrix or Avatar.) Our goal was to design systems and experiences so real you felt like you were actually inside of the virtual world. VR experiences often required a $150,000 system, including heavy, bulky 3D immersive headsets, position trackers, lots of wires, and expensive computers.

In 2014 my company, Mindtoon Lab, designs and studies  meditation experiences, played inside of your body and mind with eyes closed. But I’m still fascinated by many of the same issues.  Technologically mediated experiences and meditation experiences both involve designed experiences, and both ultimately depend upon the experiencer.

My VR experiences were built with the Mandala Second Person VR system, using a video camera and blue screen chromakey key to separate the person from the background and insert them into a computer-generated scene.  Edge detection software could be programmed to react when their body touched a virtual animated object. (Today, Microsoft’s Kinect and other systems do the same and more.)

Heeter et al. 3D Undersea VR Experience, exhibited at CyberArts, 1990

Heeter et al. 3D Undersea VR Experience, exhibited at CyberArts, 1990

Players stood in front of a blue screen looking at a 3D camera and a large screen. They saw video of themselves on the large screen, inside of 3D “undersea” video recorded at the Monterrey aquarium.  A small animated octopus swam into view. When it reached the player, it grabbed onto whatever body part it touched, held on, and made a gurgling sound.  If you moved slowly, it moved with you. If you moved quickly, you shook it off and it swam away.  After a while, a much larger octopus showed up and the interaction happened again. Continue reading

Meditation Changes How and Where We Direct Our Attention

by Carrie Heeter, February 2, 2014

Wandering minds are distracted from the present moment by stream of consciousness narratives. Brain scans show that the default mode of resting attention in western society resembles a wandering mind. We habitually allow our experience of the present moment to be interrupted and superseded by thoughts and rumination about the past and future.

Adapted from Daniel Siegel’s Mindsight Institute Wheel of Awareness

Recent research shows that focusing attention on stream of consciousness narrative (NF) such as memory and reflective self-knowledge uses a separate neural pathway than focusing attention on sensory experience of the present moment (EF). According to neuropsychologist Norm Farb, there is a fundamental neural disconnect between these two distinct modes of self-awareness. Continue reading

Meditation 101 Changes How We Act in the World and How Our Brains Function

by Carrie Heeter, 1/27/2014

Media effects scientists study immediate and long term effects of media exposure such as playing video games. Some of those effects are positive.  For example, playing World of Warcraft quests as a member of a guild over time improves leadership skills.  Playing first person shooter games before surgery improves doctors’ laparoscopic surgery skills. We call these effects “incidental” because the games were not designed to result in those outcomes.

Meditation effects scientists study incidental effects of meditation.  What they are finding is more dramatic and stranger than anything I have seen in three decades of media effects research.  Let’s look at three recent studies published in Psychological Science in 2013 that examined incidental effects of a mere two (or for one study, eight) weeks of beginning mindfulness meditation practice.

Study 1: Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering

Study 1: Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering

Continue reading

Experimental Scientific Evidence of Benefits of Experiential Meditation for Higher Education

by Carrie Heeter, 1/19/2014

meditationHigherEdScientific methods used to study yogic-meditative practices document wonderful outcomes but ignore the process and experience of meditation. Today I write about a review of empirical evidence of how meditation practices complement and enhance higher education, conducted by Shapiro, Brown, and Astin (2011). They identified three primary rationales for incorporating meditation into higher education: 1.) Improving Cognition and Academic Performance; 2.) Improving Mental Health and Psychological Well-Being; and 3.) Development of the Whole Person.

Within the outcome of improved cognition, the authors reviewed four empirical studies of the effect of meditation on attention, where meditators were compared with control groups. Three of those administered standard psychological tests to measure attention, and one used fMRI brain scans. Four experiments examining the impact of meditation on information processing were reviewed. This section concluded by describing an experiment in which subjects randomly assigned to a semester-long meditation intervention had significantly higher GPAs at the end of the semester. Continue reading

Why A Neuroscientist Would Study Meditation

by Carrie Heeter, 1/12/2014

In a TEDxTalk posted in July, 2011, Professor Willoughby Britton talks about the emerging field of contemplative neuroscience, which is neuroscience applied to studying the family of mental training practices in major religions of the world designed to cultivate positive qualities of mind. One of these qualities of mind is attention. being able to bring your attention back to an object that you are intending to pay attention to.  Her work focuses on empirical study of meditation.

Willoughby Britton

Willoughby Britton speaking at TEDx at Brown University

She referenced Killingsworth’s 2010 study, “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind,” published in Science, November 12.  A pervasive tendency or habit of mind is that we do not pay attention to what we are doing, nearly 50% of the time, and doing things while the mind wanders makes us less happy than when we are paying attention to what we are doing. Continue reading