Meditation and the Wandering Mind: A Theoretical Framework of Underlying Neurocognitive Mechanisms

Perspect Psychol Sci. 2021 Jan;16(1):39-66. doi: 10.1177/1745691620917340. Epub 2020 Jun 29.


During the practice of meditation, the tendency of the mind to wander away from the object of focus is ubiquitous. The occurrence of mind wandering in the context of meditation provides individuals a unique and intimate opportunity to closely examine the nature of the wandering mind by cultivating an awareness of ongoing thought patterns, while simultaneously aiming to cultivate equanimity (evenness of temper or disposition) and compassion toward the content of thoughts, interpretations, and bodily sensations. In this article we provide a theoretical framework that highlights the neurocognitive mechanisms by which contemplative practices influence the neural and phenomenological processes underlying spontaneous thought. Our theoretical model focuses on several converging mechanisms: the role of meta-awareness in facilitating an increased moment-to-moment awareness of spontaneous thought processes, the effects of meditation practice on key structures underlying both the top-down cognitive processes and bottom-up sensory processes implicated in attention and emotion regulation, and the influence of contemplative practice on the neural substrates underlying perception and perceptual decoupling.

Keywords: meditation; mind wandering; neural networks; spontaneous thought.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't