The Mind of the Meditator
Scientific American Just put out a decent summary of the current neuroscience research on meditation written by friends, Matthieu Ricard, Antoine Lutz, and Richie Davidson. I enjoyed reading the article and thought I’d share it here with some commentary. The article uses the same distinctions in meditation practice we outlined in our S-ART paper – That is Focused Attention, Open Monitoring (or Mindfulness), and Loving Kindness or Compassion (or ethical enhancement practices).
Essentially, they describe the act of meditating during Focused Attention similarly to the model below – A practitioner starts with the intention, orients attention and engages on object (Breath) – the mind becomes distracted and enters the mind-wandering default mode network – it realizes there is distraction (through decentering) and activates a salience network. Reorientation of awarenesss than involves dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and anterior inferior parietal lobe. I would further argue that the larger frontoparietal control network (including nodes of the salience network and lateral frontopolar cortex and even the lateral cerebellum) all contribute to the decentering, monitoring, and reorientation process. the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex concurrently helps with response inhibition.
Interestingly, the article also points out some of the morphological changes noted in a recent meta-analyses done by Kiran Fox HERE. The study found the frontopolar cortex and anterior insula were 2 brain regions with neuroplastic changes most often found in such studies of meditators.
New model of self-regulatory mechanisms for Yoga
How does yoga work? Is there a benefit to doing a bunch of postures, breathing, and meditation techniques while being crammed in a room full of Lululemon Athletica? A group of interdisciplinary researchers gathered at Kripalu Yoga center to discuss the potential mechanisms associated with yoga practice in contemporary settings, while also acknowledging the traditional, historical framework of ethically-motivated practices.
The manuscript (LINK) specifically poses a novel theoretical model of the potential self-regulatory mechanisms by which yoga facilitates adaptive reactions to physical and mental stress.
To give you a sense of what this model is depicting, I summarize below:
This systems network model includes the major limbs of yoga, represented as a skillset of four process tools: ethics, meditation, breath regulation, and sustained postures. As depicted in the model, cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and autonomic output in response to a stressor is modulated by a number of regulatory processes (yellow boxes) proposed to be influenced by the process tools (limbs of yoga, blue boxes). A stress response is often accompanied by cognitive, emotional, and behavioral output that includes emotional reactivity, negative appraisal, and rumination. In addition, autonomic output such as vasoconstriction, pain and/or tension, and inflammation often accompany maladaptive stress responses; (see solid black arrows). In chronic forms of such stress responses, negative, long-term consequences on health across bodily systems are often the result.
Our model proposes that yoga facilitates adaptive output (dotted lines), including long-term psychological and physical well-being, musculoskeletal strengthening, and prosocial behavior, through four primary factors in the context of stress: (1) an emphasis on interoception (body awareness) and bottom-up input (processing of information coming from the external and internal senses), (2) more efficient bidirectional feedback and integration with top-down (cognitive) processes, (3) increased phasic inhibition (red lines) of maladaptive forms of emotional, cognitive, and behavioral output (e.g., reactivity, negative appraisal, rumination) as well as autonomic output (e.g., vaso- and pulmonary constriction, inflammation, and muscle tension/pain), and (4) perceptual inference (using perceptual information from the body) rather than active inference (cognitive processing) for improved prediction (of the world) and Error Correction (less bias from previous mental habits). These four factors optimize self-regulation and improve the communication and flexibility by which top-down and bottom-up processes inform behavioral output in the context of physical and emotional stress. Through repeated yoga practice, there is a resulting skillful optimization of autonomic control in response to stressors on and off the yoga mat – keeping arousal at lower levels during stress-mediated challenge, maintaining positive appraisal and reinforcement, helping the practitioner stay relaxed with less effort, and facilitating rapid recovery of bodily systems under stress. A number of cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and autonomic mechanisms are proposed along with the underlying high- and low-level brain networks that support such mechanisms.
The takehome point: Yoga facilitates improved stress response modulation on and off the mat.
Vedana – Affective Feeling Tone or simply Sensation?
This is very interesting.Thank you for the video clip. I am not totally sure about Bob’s suggested definition. Vedana comes upon contact, so feeling tone is quite good, with the emphasis on tone or tonality. I would use feeling sensation for something a little more elaborate emotionally. What is interesting about vedana is that the same contact with a different person lead to a different vedana, i.e art, music or food. Moreover in a different state the same contact will give rise to a different vedana to the same person. So there is something constructed already in terms of culture or affinity for example, or conditional in terms of circumstances. Also it can be quite subtle sometimes and then tonality is quite suitable there. What do you think?Warmly,
thanks so much for engaging in this dialogue….if you don’t mind, I’d like to share your comments with the contemplative community. I feel it could benefit from more heads than two. 🙂
My difficulty is primarily a semantic one. The word “tone” doesn’t translate well into psychological or cognitive terms in which we typically talk about emotion, sensation/perception, or valence. I think we are likely to agree that contact with a sense object will lead to different vedana across individuals due to culture, inherent bias, conditioning, or otherwise. The often underlooked nature of emotional expression (e.g., anger) lies within the initial contact with the sensory object of that anger (e.g., favorite wine spoils). Upon first taste that the wine has spoiled, there is a non-conscious assessment of taste that either leads to an immediate emotional reaction or cognitive interpretation and further reactivity. In this example, there is a particular temporal framework to describe contact with sense object through non-conscious processing and then a more elaborate expression of emotion. The question I still have is whether Vedana resides in the initial contact with spoiled wine, the knee-jerk reaction of anger, or the cognitive elaboration of anger??
Yes, please do share.
It is a good question.
I am very interested in vedanas because I think that they influenced a lot of what we do but it takes time for us to notice where it comes from because we have already elaborated and move somewhere else with it.
In my humble opinion vedana refers to the initial contact. We come into contact with something, this creates for example an unpleasant feeling tone, which we then have to give meaning to and then we further elaborate and stick it to something else. I would say that we start with a feeling tone, then it can become a feeling sensation that is where basic anger (survival mechanism, automatic judgement, etc) might come in and then it can turn into a disturbing emotion. This is a way I would parse it but I am not an academic only a meditator so that I am not sure how the vocabulary could work in an academic context.
Two points to consider. You have a nice experience > pleasant vedana, then something small abruptly make this change > unpleasant vedana but you do not notice it, it is just a funny feeling. Then an hour later you find yourself saying something nasty to someone totally foreign to the previous vedanas. If you investigate you realise that it is the first vedana moving quickly into the 2nd which then lead you to something you think/feel is right when it is wrong.
I have seen this again and again how vedanas seep sideways and create suffering if you are not more aware of them. I think that vedanas are crucial in terms of being ethical or not but that often there are not that much conscious content but a lot of automatism.
I am also keen on neutral feeling tones and not everyone agree on these. Maybe we should skype, it could be fun.
The wine example: it starts with a taste > different from expected> could stay there and feel and explore the strangeness of the state: pleasant, unpleasant, neutral. What does it feel like? 3rd nama is key: perception/meaning> the wine tastes funny > the wine is spoiled> this is terrible that the wine is spoiled > it was such an expensive bottle > I/someone made a mistake (again) > I/s/he is terrible > I am always terrible…..
Do you work with the framework of the nama factors?
Nice article on Martine [Link]
more recently (June, 2017), there was a conference organized by the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies on this topic (Vedana) – [Link]
Here, BCBS resident scholar Mu Soeng overviews the concept of vedana and offers a brief summary of each speaker’s presentation at the symposium. Part two will be a new article from Bhikkhu Analayo on the issue of the third kind of vedana (the neutral or neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant).
Admittedly, there is a difficulty in translation. He states, “When translated as “feeling” or “feeling tone” its understanding in, and application to, meditative process takes on a certain hermeneutic trajectory. When translated as “sensation” an alternate or a parallel understanding and application emerges that could be considered phenomenological.”
Great speakers were present from both Buddhist and Neuroscientific perspectives, including: John Peacock, Akincano Weber, Anne Klein, Robert Buswell, and Martine Batchelor. The other group representing neuroscientists who are also Buddhist practitioners consisted of Sara Lazar, Judson Brewer, Paul Grossman, and Anurag Gupta.
You may all look forward to reading the transcripts of the full presentations as they become available. Unfortunately, I have yet to read a satisfying account clarifying the types of processing contributing to “initial sensory contact” with an object using both pre-conditioned forms of attention, sensory-motor, and memory processing as well as something relatively novel with fewer biases to distort the initial processing pre-conscious and at moment of perception before evaluation.
The full papers from the conference will be published in the Spring 2018 issue of Contemporary Buddhism (Vol 19:1).
Can Enlightenment be traced to specific correlates of the Brain, Cognition, or Behavior?
The term “Enlightenment” is quite a big word with a lot of semantic baggage. It’s really an imprecise construct for the field of contemplative neuroscience. Friend and colleague, Jake Davis, a Buddhist scholar and I comment in a recent issue of Frontiers in Consciousness about the forseeable future of unpacking the concept into clearly observable phenomena. Check out the paper here [Link]
“Using the term enlightenment or even the term more native to Buddhist traditions, “awakening” (bodhi), as if it referred to a single outcome either privileges one conception over others or else assumes that there is some commonality among the traditional goals of diverse contemplative traditions. There are deep disagreements over the nature of the goal between and even within various Buddhist schools. Scientific investigations cannot assume that there is any commonality among the transformative changes referred to as “kensho,” “stream entry,” “realizing the nature of mind,” and so on, that various Buddhist traditions take as various stages of awakening. Empirical investigations of these constructs can only proceed with reference to the specific psychological and behavioral outcomes described in the native discourse of a specific tradition”
- Enlightened Science: Technology & Meditation (buddhistinsight.com)
Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, & Self-Transcendence (S-ART): A Framework for Understanding the Neurobiological Mechanisms of Mindfulness
I wanted to take this space-time to introduce you to an integrative systems-based neurobiological model and theoretical framework for understanding the mechanisms by which mindfulness functions to reduce attention-specific and affective biases related to self processing and creates a sustainable healthy mind. The model attempts to integrate findings from the extant empirical literature related to mindfulness with our growing understanding of the mechanisms for neurocognition and with traditional Buddhist systems from which contemporary practices of mindfulness originate. The paper in which this framework and model are discussed at length was recently published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. [Link]
Our method for understanding mindfulness has been to focus broadly on the goals of mindfulness as it is described in the early Buddhist suttas and in the Western medical model: To decrease mental suffering and create a sustainable healthy mind. In this context, we operationalize mindfulness in two ways: 1) As a broadly defined method for developing self-awareness, self-regulation and self-transcendence (S-ART); 2) As a continuous discriminative attentional capacity.
Our second formulation is one critical skill in a multidimentional skillset that is developed and strengthened through specific meditation practices. Other skills are described to function along with mindfulness to support S-ART.
To be clear, this is in no way a new definition that is meant to disparage Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s widely disseminated description: “Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” – but more so an attempt to dismantle the concept into component parts so that we can better study it in the laboratory.
I discuss the framework in a recent talk given at the 23rd annual Trauma Conference in Boston, MA
The lay press for this theoretical framework can be found at:
Psych Central [Link]
Brigham & Women’s Hospital [Link]
Science Daily [Link]
Boston Globe [Link]
Medical Express [Link]
His Holiness The Dalai Lama is Coming to MIT – Oct. 14-16th
The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics is sponsoring an event with His Holiness to confront important issues of contemporary society. Check out the link [Link] or [Link]
Some videos related to the talks can be found Here [Link]
Beyond Religion, Ethics, Values and Well-being | October 14, 1:30pm
A Talk by His Holiness the Dalai Lama with response by Br. David Steindl-Rast and Fr. Thomas Keating. A unique, precious chance to be in the presence of these three wise elders.
Global Systems 2.0 | October 15, Panel I, 9:30-11:30am; Panel II, 1:30-3:30pm
This day-long forum is a continuation of The Center’s 2009 inaugural series of conversations with the aim of sparking ideas to address the complex challenges in industry, academia, government, and the world at large through systems thinking and innovation. Global Systems thinking provides practical information from multiple disciplines.
Stages of Meditation: Buddhism for the 21st Century | October 16, 9:30am
A Teaching by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, hosted by Prajnopaya at MIT.
Based on Kamalashila’s essential 8th century meditation text, the teaching offers an in-depth introduction to contemplative practice and its contemporary relevance in day-to-day life.
Contemplative Practices and Mental Training: Prospects for American Education
The Mind and Life Education Research Group met regularly for 4 years (2007-2011) to create a research agenda for contemplative education. A scholarly white paper manifested as a result drawing on research in neuroscience, cognitive science, developmental psychology, and education, as well as scholarship from contemplative traditions concerning the cultivation of positive development, to highlight a set of mental skills and socioemotional dispositions that are central to the aims of education in the 21st century. These include self-regulatory skills associated with emotion and attention, self-representations, and prosocial dispositions such as empathy and compassion. It should be possible to strengthen these positive qualities and dispositions through systematic contemplative practices, which induce plastic changes in brain function and structure, supporting prosocial behavior and academic success in young people. These putative beneficial consequences call for focused programmatic research to better characterize which forms and frequencies of practice are most effective for which types of children and adolescents. Results from such research may help refine training programs to maximize their effectiveness at different ages and to document the changes in neural function and structure that might be induced.
The paper can be found Here [Link]
my personal copy [MLERN_2012]
Contemplative Education supported by the 1440 Foundation
I wanted to share some great videos explaining the benefits of contemplative education and the research being conducted around the world supported by the 1440 Foundation.
David Vago on Contemplative Science from 1440 Foundation on Vimeo.
Dr. Robert Roeser on Supporting the Support System from 1440 Foundation on Vimeo.
Mark Greenberg – 1440 Interview from 1440 Foundation on Vimeo.
Amishi Jha – 1440 Interview from 1440 Foundation on Vimeo.
Some great press on why contemplative education should be a priority!
Robert Piper writes on this topic at Huffington Post [Link]
Mind and Life’s Summer Research Institute 2012: A brief review
Imagine munching on oatmeal and scones, sitting on pillows, walking barefoot down quiet stony halls, and doing sun salutations with Buddhist monks, scientists, and other academics, all working towards integrating eastern and western philosophy in a way that may better our relationship with ourselves and with the world. More than a usual conference, more than any old mindfulness retreat, the Mind and Life’s Summer Research Institute melds the two, becoming an incubator for future investigations in contemplative science. Share your research questions, and anyone around you is excited to engage you in a critical discussion that may inspire new paradigms. The MLSRI is truly a beautiful, dynamic force for working towards an end to human suffering.
This year’s MLSRI, themed “The Situated and Embodied Mind”, was an enmeshing of scientific and spiritual inquiry aimed at uprooting the western dualist mind-body split and bringing the body back into the inner experience of the self. Major focus was placed on the body’s role in contemplative practices and scientific investigations of these practices.
The week’s lecturers included Evan Thomson, Ph.D., Sarah McClintock, Ph.D., Diego Hangartner, Pharm.D., Bhikkhu Analayo, Ph.D., George Chrousos, M.D., Lawrence Barsalou, Ph.D., Susan Bauer-Wu, Ph.D., FAAN, Linda Craighead. Ph.D., Anne Klein, Ph.D., Rebecca Todd, Ph.D., Richard Davidson, Ph.D., Andrew Dreitcer, Ph.D., Michael Spezio, Ph.D., Sona Dimidjian, Ph.D., and Roshi Joan Halifax, Ph.D.
Throughout the week, retreaters were exposed to various body-based contemplative practices, including morning yoga led by Mary Taylor and Richard Freeman, and Tai Chi led by Peter Wayne, Ph.D.
Tuesday was a silent retreat day, with periods of alternating sitting and walking meditation. Seated practices were led by Roshi Joan Halifax, Ph.D., Al Kaszniak, Ph.D., and Sharon Salzberg.
Celebrating Arthur Zajonc’s first year as MLI president, the 2012 retreat promised a bright future for the institute.
More information about the 2012 MLSRI is available here: http://www.mindandlife.org/research-initiatives/sri/sri12/
Photos (courtesy of Dave): https://plus.google.com/photos/117698297325020650188/albums/5755351551842073889?banner=pwa
Why Mindfulness can help the Immune System
Stress is immunosuppressive. Research into this pernicious relationship between stress and disease has piqued interest in the ways that contemplative practices might positively influence the immune system. According to a large body of evidence, meditation appears to have profound effects on immune function in health and disease because of its ability to reduce stress.
Why does mindfulness reduce stress?
Two main facets of mindfulness meditation are equanimity and focused attention. Equanimity towards one’s thoughts decreases reactivity to stressful stimuli, and focused attention helps reduce the tendency towards the type of ruminative thinking that can activate the stress pathway. This relaxation response seems to have multiple effects on the body’s stress pathways. It enhances vagal tone, which in turn suppresses the activity of pro-inflammatory cytokines through the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway. It also reduces hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) activity in response to stressful situations, reducing basal levels of cortisol and meditating other downstream stress-related processes.
The majority of empirical evidence for meditation’s effect on the immune system support a protection and recovery model. Imagine being caught in a rainstorm without a raincoat and without a towel. In a torrent of stress, mindfulness is both the raincoat (preventative) and towel (palliative), so that, at the very least, stress is impeded in its course to reach downstream immune targets. Some lines of evidence are described below:
1) Richard Davidson has conducted studies on the relationship between affective style and brain lateralization, and has found that people with positive affect have increased right prefrontal activation compared to people with negative affect. In a recent study, Davidson and colleagues found that after an eight-week mindfulness program, subjects demonstrated both increased left-PFC activation as well as an increased antibody production after administration of a flu vaccine, indicating an enhanced immune response.
2) Amount of meditation practice in a 6-week compassion meditation program was positively correlated with a decrease in stress-induced interleukin-6 (a pro-inflammatory cytokine with immunosuppressive activity; increased IL-6 production is common among individuals with chronic stress and depression.)
3) Subjects who participated in a three-month mindfulness meditation program demonstrated increased activity in immune cell telomerase, an enzyme responsible for preventing immune cell death. Suppressed telomerase activity is related to increased stress perception. Increased telomerase activity is associated with decreased LDL cholesterol and epinephrine.
4) A “perception” approach to mindfulness and the immune system
Another proposed mechanism, in contrast to the stress-reduction paradigm, is a “perception” approach to meditation’s effect on the immune system, whereby one sensory modality shifts to accommodate another sensory modality. This perception approach is demonstrated by the classic “prism experiment”. If you are holding an object in your palm, you are receiving information from both visual and proprioceptive modalities. If a prism is placed in your line of vision, however, there is a perceptual discrepancy between the information from the two modalities. To overcome this discrepancy, one modality will attenuate to match the other. This “cross-modal adaptation” can also explain why mindfulness seems to positively influence the immune system. If one can visualize oneself as “healthy”, they can cause their immune system to attenuate to match the visualized information. However, there are two premises that must be accepted: a) the immune system is a sensory modality, and that b) visualization involves the same neurobiological processes that vision does and thus also functions as a sensory modality. This mechanism lacks substantial empirical support, however, and could benefit from further study. This mechanism may not pertain to mindfulness, which is more about an open, non-intrusive introspection. However, it may support visualization-related practices, such as Tibetan g Tum-mo yoga, in which practitioners are able to regulate their body temperature [LINK].
Benson, H., Beary, J.F., Carol, M.P. (1974). The relaxation response. Psychiatry, 37, 37-46.
Davidson, R.J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S.F., Urbanowski, F., Harrington, A., Bonus, K., Sheridan, J.F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564-570.
Jacobs, T.L., Epel, E.S., Lin, J., Blackburn, E.H., Wolkowitz, O.M., Bridwell, D.A., Zanesco, A.P., Aichele, S.R., Sahdra, B.K., MacLean, K.A., King, B.G., Shaver, P.R., Rosenberg, E.L., Ferrer, E., Wallace, B.A., Saron, C.D. (2010) Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators. Psychoneuroendocrinology.
Olivo, E.L. (2009). Protection through the lifespan: the psychoneuroimmunological impact of Indo-Tibetan meditative and yoga practices. Annals Of The New York Academy Of Sciences, 1172, 163-71.
Pace, T.W.W., Negi, L. T., Adame, D.D., Cole, S.P., Sivilli, T.I., Brown, T.D., Issa, M.J., Raison, C.L. (2008). Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology.
Tausk F., Elenkov, I., Moynihan, J. (2008). Psychoneuroimmunology. Dermatologic Therapy. 21(1), 22-31.
A new contributing editor
My name is Emily Epstein, and I’ll be posting on behalf of Dave this summer. I am interning with him at the Functional Neuroimaging Lab. I’m a Neuroscience major at Colorado College, currently working on my undergraduate thesis involving the benefits of body-based contemplative practices for women with sexual abuse-induced pelvic pain. I’m particularly interested in the ways that mindfulness can help those with trauma, and plan to soon journey down the clinical PhD path so I can someday use mindfulness techniques to help trauma victims enhance their body awareness in order to find stability and growth in their lives.
For those of you lamenting Dave’s temporary absence, have no fear! He will still be contributing in the creation of each entry, and perhaps periodically posting his own entries. As always, feedback is welcome.
May you all be happy.
The Science of Compassion: Origins, Measures & Interventions – Teluride, Co (July 18-22)
The Science of Compassion: Origins, Measures & Interventions
July 18-22, Telluride, Colorado
Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education present The Science of Compassion. This first large-scale conference of its kind held on the science of compassion brings together an outstanding group of world experts in the fields of altruism, compassion, and service to present their latest research. The conference is open to anyone interested in compassion, altruism and service. Researchers are invited to submit a poster for presentation during poster sessions.
Co-sponsoring the event are the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, The Greater Good Science Center, The Telluride Institute, and the Swedish Institution for Contemplation in Education and Research.
For more information, please see the Science of Compassion Website: http://ccare.stanford.edu/telluride For questions about the Science of Compassion event (July 19-22), please contact Emma Seppala 650.723.3248 email@example.com Follow the Science of Compassion on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ScienceofCompassion
Preceding the Science of Compassion will be a daylong Compassion Festival organized by the Telluride Institute. For questions about the Compassion Festival (July 18-19), please contact Ehran Borg 970.708.7577 firstname.lastname@example.org or see www.compassionfestival.org