Mental Silence and Meditation

The running monologue inside our heads has a way of putting up a dividing wall between us and our happiness. We can relate to the severity of this issue in extreme cases such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression. Our stream of consciousness – at its most malicious – can commandeer our entire view of ourselves and dim our view on the outside world. This mind-gone-wild affliction touches us all, to differing degrees.

‘I think, therefore I am’, was René Descartes’ line from Discourse on the Method.¹ Our awareness of self is our defining characteristic. Furthermore, our ability as human beings to reflect upon, and investigate our thoughts – and the neural basis of these thoughts – is veritably mind-blowing. However, when self-awareness turns into incessant mind-chatter, we begin to question its value and seek ways to quiet the noise.

In long-term meditators, scientists have observed structural changes² and greater functional connectivity within the default mode network, namely in the medial prefrontal cortex area.³

The default mode network is a hypothesized network within the brain thought to be invoked during moments of idling, mind-wandering or daydreaming. This increased connectivity, which was observed at rest, may suggest long-term meditation practice is connected to functional changes relating to internalized attention. This may also suggest the switching off of irrelevant brain networks, or lessening the effects of emotional processing which would assist in heightened focus.

The ability to focus is one by product of meditation, but what about pure mental silence? And what are the mechanisms at play? The neural correlates of mental silence during meditation don’t appear to be well-understood, partially because of the need to better understand meditation types themselves, but research in this area is active.ª

Experientially, mental silence is fairly easily reproducible. Ajahn Brahm, 61, is a British Theravadan Buddhist monk who trained in the forest meditation tradition under Ajahn Chah. In 45 seconds, he demonstrates how anyone has the ability to silence one’s mind.

For novice meditators, these are the diamond-in-the-rough moments that you may experience during a meditation session where everything stops: thoughts, sensations, time. For experienced meditators, the experience likely arises with every meditation sitting, as well as throughout the day.

The moments in between – mental silence – need not be explained by science to be appreciated.

 

¹ The full sentence from Discourse on the Method was, ‘I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.’ – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cogito_ergo_sum

² Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners – http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763414000724

³ Increased default mode network connectivity associated with meditation. – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21034792

ª Monitoring the neural activity of the state of mental silence while practicing Sahaja yoga meditation – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21034792