“The positive effects of mindfulness meditation on pain and working memory may result from an improved ability to regulate a crucial brain wave called the alpha rhythm. This rhythm is thought to “turn down the volume” on distracting information, which suggests that a key value of meditation may be helping the brain deal with an often-overstimulating world. […]
“Our discovery that mindfulness meditators more quickly adjusted the brain wave that screens out distraction could explain their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.”
Brain cells use particular frequencies or waves to regulate the flow of information in much the same way that radio stations broadcast at specific frequencies. One frequency, the alpha rhythm, is particularly active in the cells that process touch, sight and sound in the brain’s outmost layer, called the cortex, where it helps to suppress irrelevant or distracting sensations and regulate the flow of sensory information between brain regions.
Previous studies have suggested that attention can be used to regulate the alpha rhythm and, in turn, sensory perception. When an individual anticipates a touch, sight or sound, the focusing of attention toward the expected stimulus induces a lower alpha wave height in cortical cells that would handle the expected sensation, which actually “turns up the volume” of those cells. At the same time the height of the alpha wave in cells that would handle irrelevant or distracting information increases, turning the volume in those regions down. Because mindfulness meditation — in which practitioners direct nonjudgmental attention to their sensations, feelings and state of mind — has been associated with improved performance on attention-based tasks, the research team decided to investigate whether individuals trained in the practice also exhibited enhanced regulation of the timing and intensity of alpha rhythms.”