The 'Aha!' Moment
Updated: Jan 10, 2022
Sit to meditate long enough and you'll soon notice the mind has wandered. This is common. It is at this point a teacher will instruct you to gently, but firmly, return attention to the object of focus. This essay explores why the moment of recognition- called the 'aha' moment- is so important.
First, simply acknowledging mind wandering as normal mutes frustration. If, on the other hand, a meditator sits with the expectation that the mind should be empty, calm, quiescent, peaceful, or blissful and it is not, we trigger a dopamine reward error response. Our expectations are not indexed to our experience. "No matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to keep my mind focused and relaxed." "My mind is restless. I must not be doing something right." We've missed our target expectations. A pea-sized structure in the brain called the habenula inhibits dopamine activity. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which affects learning, attention, and motivation- among other functions. Too little of it, we lose interest, attention wanders, motivation wanes. The habenula is an anti-reward system; it plays an important role in aversive experiences and in making decisions so as to avoid future disappointment. This may explain why so many people quit.
If, on the other hand, I recognize mind wandering as normal and reframe recognition as a victory, a different process unfolds. When we celebrate the aha moment, neurons activate in the brain’s ventral tegmental area (VTA), a place in the midbrain that secretes dopamine. Dopamine is the signal that creates that rush of joy or bliss, and it travels from the VTA to the nucleus accumbens and spreads from there to other structures throughout the brain. The increased dopamine levels deliver a sense of pleasure, improve attention and interest. We’re then motivated to repeat our behavior to reach that pleasure again. The mind wanders- aha! I recognized it's wandered. I return my attention to the object of focus. Again, the mind wanders, at some point I recognize the mind has wandered. Yes! This is the attitude of the skilled meditator.
During a focused meditation session, it is common to cycle through 5 intervals:
1. Sustained attention
Attention is single-pointedly focused on an object (the object of focus could be the breath, a word, a sound, a sensation, etc.). The executive network is active. This network includes the right parietal cortex, right frontal cortex, and thalamus. When we are focused on the touch sensation of the breath, the parietal lobes are active. The right frontal lobe is responsible for impulse control- among other functions. The thalamus regulates alertness.
2. Mind wandering (Default Mode Network)
At some point, the mind may wander. The posterior cingulate cortex, posterior lateral parietal/temporal cortices, cingulate cortex, and parahippocampal gyrus are active. This network, called the default mode network (DMN), is associated with mind wandering, disruption of attention, autobiographical memories, judgment, self-referential thoughts, guilt, and emotional processing. This may explain why meditation is so difficult for beginners. When the mind wanders and they realize the mind has wandered, rather than cut and reorient attention, they criticize their performance (judgment), make self-referential evaluations ("This isn't for me; I'm just not good at this"), and simply reinforce the DMN. Tibetan Buddhists call this nyon-yi, the nuisance mind or neurotic mind. In Sanskrit, this phase is called vijnana, or the divided mind. In adept meditators, the DMN becomes less active or quiescent.
3. Awareness of mind wandering (Salience Network)
This is the moment a practitioner realizes attention has wandered. This is the aha moment. The skilled meditator celebrates and reorients attention; the unskilled meditator returns to the default state: "This is frustrating!" "Dammit! I can't do this!" etc. Active nodes include the cingulate cortex and the anterior insula. The cingulate cortex is involved in emotion formation, processing, learning and memory. The salience network and its functional architecture is involved in cognitive control, perceptual decision, and error processing, How we process the error- whether skillfully or unskillfully- will affect perceptions, learning outcomes and performance.
4. Letting go (Executive function) This is a critical choice point. The experienced practitioner lets go of the distraction. Active nodes: basal ganglia, lateral ventral cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). These nodes are involved in control and decision making. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), interestingly, lies in a unique position in the brain, with connections to both the “emotional” limbic system and the “cognitive” prefrontal cortex. The ACC likely plays an important role in affect regulation serving as a mediator between emotions and reason.
5. Re-orienting (Executive function)
The practitioner redirects attention to the object of focus. Active nodes: superior colliculus and frontal eye fields, temporal parietal junction and the superior parietal cortex.
In conclusion, when the mind wanders and you realize it's wandered, celebrate, cut, and reorient attention. In this way, you strengthen those neural networks. You develop greater cognitive control. You maintain your motivation and can sustain your meditation practice.
Maintain a growth mindset. No one is born with enhanced attentional control. We must train mindfully, intelligently, and with patience.