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How Thinking Ahead Can Actually Still and Help the Mind

Our understanding of what the brain does at rest has been transformed. Yoga may not be the only way to still the mind.

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But there remain at least two big challenges if we are to understand the complex neurological and psychic attributes of mental states of "rest". First, to understand the relationship between brain dynamics and corresponding inner experience – a scientific effort that is nothing less than an attempt to characterise the fugitive movements and mechanisms of thought. Second, to really figure out what the relationship is between the state of rest that characterises the strange, constricted experience of being inside an MRI scanner, and people's everyday, varied and unequal experiences of mental and bodily rest. To make progress on either of these questions, we need far richer descriptions and models of what actually goes on in minds – and, of course, bodies – during states of rest than we have now.

Are the new "busier" models of mental rest that are being advanced in neuroscience and psychology drawing from changing experiences of "rest" in people's everyday lives? Current models of the resting mind need to incorporate insights from people's multifaceted experiences of rest, which undoubtedly extend well beyond currently favoured practices for "stilling the mind" such as meditation.

It's worth recalling that rest is commonly defined by what it isn't. In a dictionary, for example, you'll find it defined as the absence of activity, labour, exertion, disturbance and movement. That minds "at rest" are now, at least in certain quarters, characterised precisely by their activity, labour, exertion and movement, poses for us all important scientific and social questions about this commonly hidden but vital aspect of our lives.

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