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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).

meditation_brain

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.

concentration_meditation_2012_09_16

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.

sci_american4

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Attention and Meditation

There has been a lot of research now supporting the role of meditation in Cognitive processes like Attention, Working memory, and Affect or Emotion Regulation.

1. Here is the link for a report from the NCAAM website reporting on the Attentional Blink phenonmenon and how it may be affected by long-term meditation practice. A 2008 PLoS Biology article from the Davidson lab, by Heleen Slagter can be found HERE.

2. Another article, “Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation”, by the Davidson lab that made the cover of TICS (Trends in Cognitive Science) is a 2008 TICS paper by Antoine Lutz. You can find it HERE.

April 2008 cover of Trends in Cognitive Science

April 2008 cover of Trends in Cognitive Science

Meditation May Increase Empathy

Here are a few links for research supporting the claim that Meditation increases empathy.

1. NCCAM report citing Antoine Lutz’s 2008 PLosOne article. NCCAM site; Lutz article HERE

2. Tania Singer: a. The neuronal basis and ontogeny of empathy and mind reading: Review of literature and implications for future research; NaBR, 2006 article HERE; b. Empathy for Pain Involves the Affective but not Sensory Components of Pain – Science, 2004 article HERE

Tania states: “We propose two major roles for empathy; its epistemological role is to provide information about the future actions of other people, and important environmental properties. Its social role is to serve as the origin of the motivation for cooperative and prosocial behavior, as well as help for effective social communication.”

3. Hein and Singer: I feel how you feel but not always: the empathic brain and its
modulation;article HERE

CLARIFICATION NOTE: Empathy is the capacity to recognize or understand another’s state of mind or emotion. It is often characterized as the ability to “put oneself into another’s shoes”, or to in some way experience the outlook or emotions of another being within oneself. It is important to note that empathy does not necessarily imply compassion. Empathy can be ‘used’ for compassionate or cruel behavior.

Emotional Contagion: The tendency to express and feel emotions that are similar to and influenced by those of others. One view of the underlying mechanism is that it represents a tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994). see WIKI

Sympathy: the recognition of another’s suffering; making known one’s understanding of another’s unhappiness or suffering

Compassion: Profound human emotion prompted by the pain of others. More vigorous than empathy, the feeling commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another’s suffering. It is often, though not inevitably, the key component in what manifests in the social context as altruism

From Wiki: “Compassion or karuna is at the transcendental and experiential heart of the Buddha’s teachings. He was reputedly asked by his secretary, Ananda, “Would it be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is a part of our practice? To which the Buddha replied, “No. It would not be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is part of our practice. It would be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindess and compassion is all of our practice.” See WIKI

Schadenfreude: Enjoyment taken from the misfortune of someone else

Tania and her imaging lab has been looking at these components of emotion in experienced, long-term meditators like Matthieu Ricard

Matthieu preparing to demonstrate compassion in the scanner

Matthieu preparing to demonstrate compassion in the scanner