Research Article: Spontaneous eye movements during focused-attention mindfulness meditation

Date Published: January 24, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Alessio Matiz, Cristiano Crescentini, Anastasia Fabbro, Riccardo Budai, Massimo Bergamasco, Franco Fabbro, Joseph Najbauer.


Oculometric measures have been proven to be useful markers of mind-wandering during visual tasks such as reading. However, little is known about ocular activity during mindfulness meditation, a mental practice naturally involving mind-wandering episodes. In order to explore this issue, we extracted closed-eyes ocular movement measurements via a covert technique (EEG recordings) from expert meditators during two repetitions of a 7-minute mindfulness meditation session, focusing on the breath, and two repetitions of a 7-minute instructed mind-wandering task. Power spectral density was estimated on both the vertical and horizontal components of eye movements. The results show a significantly smaller average amplitude of eye movements in the delta band (1–4 Hz) during mindfulness meditation than instructed mind-wandering. Moreover, participants’ meditation expertise correlated significantly with this average amplitude during both tasks, with more experienced meditators generally moving their eyes less than less experienced meditators. These findings suggest the potential use of this measure to detect mind-wandering episodes during mindfulness meditation and to assess meditation performance.

Partial Text

Mindfulness meditation practitioners are skilled to intentionally sustain their focus on present-moment experiences (thoughts, emotions, feelings) with a detached attitude toward their mental contents. After an indefinite period of time, however, their minds usually drift away from the meditation object, giving rise to spontaneous thought. Sometime during this mental state, known as mind-wandering, which also extends for an indefinite period of time, practitioners become aware that they are not focused on the meditation object (e.g., breath) and try to shift their attention back to it.

We identified a VEM IC for 29 subjects and a HEM IC for 23 subjects. Descriptive statistics for the power in band of these ICs are provided in Table 1.

The aim of the present study was to assess differences in the level of spontaneous eye movement activity during a focused-attention mindfulness meditation task (FAM), with focus on the breath, and an instructed form of mind-wandering (IMW), requiring participants to remember episodes of their past or imagine events of the future. Results from analyses focused on two 7-minute executions of FAM and IMW showed significant differences between the average power associated with eye movements during the two tasks. More specifically, there was an increased level of ocular activity during IMW relative to FAM. This effect emerged for both the vertical and horizontal component of eye movements and was especially evident in the power recorded at lower frequencies (delta band, 1–4 Hz).

The present work investigated closed-eye ocular movements of expert meditators during instructed mind-wandering and during breath mindfulness meditation. Two main findings were obtained: a greater eye movements activity during instructed mind-wandering than mindfulness meditation and a negative relationship between mindfulness meditation expertise and ocular activity in both tasks. Taken together, these data suggest that further research could continue to explore the usefulness of using eye movement measurements during the practice of mindfulness meditation as a marker of mind-wandering and attention focus and, consequently, as an objective parameter of meditative performance.




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