Sticky Thoughts and Connecting the Puzzle Pieces

Meditation researchers like to talk about rumination and distracting thoughts during meditation practice as “sticky thoughts”…hard to release and let go of once you’ve committed to a process of list-making, conversation-critiquing and worrying-warting.  Mind wandering is one of the great wet blankets for productivity.  So how can we reduce our wandering minds in order to get stuff done quicker and more efficiently, mostly so we don’t have to spend more time fixing mistakes or double-checking our work because we were “spaced out” while we were doing it?

The key is concentration.  When we day dream or mind wander, our brain’s kick into and activate what’s called the Default Mode Network, a series of neural responses centered in the medial prefrontal cortex, the medial parietal cortex, and the medial temporal lobes.  The Default Mode Network is where your mind shifts when you are daydreaming, trying to create a grocery list, or fantasizing about one-upping your annoying colleague when you should be concentrating.  When you catch yourself daydreaming (as you tend to do when meditating), and then you recognize you’ve been hijacked, the brain flexes it’s neural connections and brings you back to the areas of neural function designed for focused attention.  The ability to recognize the wandering mind and bring it back into focus on the present moment (without beating yourself up over wandering) is the exercise of mindfulness.

The Default Mode Network certainly isn’t bad; it’s benefits are many.  It’s where our mind develops introspection; it’s considered by some researchers to be the baseline of processing and information maintenance. Separate from independent thought, the DMN may be how our brains consolidate experiences and prepare to react to the environment.  The Default Mode Network may also be in charge of making sense of the constant stream of information we take in from second to second.  Pretty important stuff in order to get us from A to B without going crazy.

With that said, your ability to recognize daydreaming and gently snap out of it is a learned activity, and it can improve with practice.  That’s where meditation, specifically the Awareness of Breath (AOB) meditation comes in handy.  By practicing this method, you become more skilled at recognizing the flow of thoughts past the breath…and you become more skilled at dropping the anchor to return to the breath.  As this week’s article states (link below),

…the practice is really meant to highlight this natural trajectory of the mind, and in doing so, it trains your attention systems to become more aware of the mental landscape at any given moment, and more adept at navigating it.

When you practice mindfulness meditation, you improve your ability to let thoughts slide through your brain and you more-quickly settle back into your awareness of breath.  Your thoughts become less “sticky”.

The benefits of creating and maintaining focus are too numerous to count; remember, this is your gym workout where the heavy lifting comes when you’ve noticed you’re distracted, you recognize the distraction (thought, feeling, sensation) and you gently steer back toward your concentration anchor.  What are the long term benefits of these repetitions of the mind?  You actually CREATE new neural networks; you strengthen the connections between the default mode network and your attention-loving prefrontal cortex.  When the two are better integrated, it’s easier to shift from one to the other.  You connect the puzzle pieces that allow you to see the whole picture:

“My mind is wandering, I’m thinking about work, it’s no big deal, I’m headed back to the breath…in…out…in…out…”

Experienced meditators, when exposed to MRI scans, are shown to shift from distraction and the Default Mode Network back to a meditative state at a quicker tempo than novice metitators…their reaction to distraction is swift and fluent.  Even so, just practicing for 2-5 minutes a day, focusing on your breath, can change your neural connections and build a more robust concentration system in your own brain.  Rad.  You’re on your way to expert status.

So as you set an intention to meditate in the near future, remember how sticky thoughts get stuck…and practice releasing them to create more connecting puzzle pieces in your brain.  You’ll get better and better at it with practice.

Click on the link here from the Greater Good Science Center to learn more about how to Focus a Wandering Mind.

Take care, and keep smiling!