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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.
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]
Science Daily [Link]
Boston Globe [Link]
Medical Express [Link]
Neuroimaging Research has grappled with the concept of a “resting brain”. Researchers interested in Consciousness have grappled with localizing subjective states of awareness and the elusive “self”. It seems that contemplative science is bringing both concepts to the table given the profound interest in tracing neurophenomenological states associated with “the self” and intentional, meditative practices.
All functional neuroimaging research has focused on Blood-oxygenation-level-dependent (BOLD) changes in the whole brain associated with a particular active, goal-directed, cognitive or emotional function and which has shown to be statistically different from BOLD activity across the whole brain during a “passive” baseline state. The baseline state that most researchers use is typically a 5-6 min long period of passive “rest”. The instructions are typically, “Let your mind freely wander” and “try not to think of anything in particular”. These instructions sound benign and appear to be the perfect baseline state, but as it turns out, [surprise…surprise] a wandering mind is quite active. The mind in this baseline state has shown to have a tendency to wander towards self-reflection (in the past and into the future). Some researchers have called this type of wandering, “mental time travel”.
Recently, a growing body of research has investigated the nature of this resting, or “default” state, and has found that brain activation previously considered to be spontaneous noise actually reflects the operation of active and functionally connected neural networks. These patterns of activation has been termed the default mode network (DMN), have been shown to increase during passive states of rest, to diminish during tasks involving attention or goal-directed behavior, and tend to implicate brain areas associated with self-reflection, internal mentation, and narrative self-focus. In many forms of psychopathology, the DMN has been found to be more active during resting states and less likely to decrease in activation during active goal-directed tasks, suggesting a relationship between psychopathology, excessive self-reflection or rumination [about past events], and increased self-projection [into the future].
In a recent study[Link] by friend and colleague, Judson Brewer at Yale University, adept meditators trained in meditation techniques rooted mostly in Theravada (vipassana/insight) traditions actively meditated using multiple types of meditation practices (Concentration, Loving-Kindness, Choiceless Awareness) while being imaged in the MRI. A “mind-wander” rest state was the baseline state in this case, and comparisons were made also between the adepts and a group of novices who had brief instructions how to perform each meditative practice.
As seen below, Experienced meditators demonstrate decreased DMN activation during meditation. Brain activation in meditators > controls is shown, collapsed across all meditations (relative to baseline). (A and B) BOLD activations were found to be greater in the left mPFC and PCC for adepts. Although, one should take note that the % change was very minimal (about .25 % at most). The mPFC and PCC are critical nodes of activation during typical mind wandering, self-reflection, and the core areas for the DMN.
Choiceless Awareness (green bars), Loving-Kindness (red), and Concentration (blue) meditations. Note that decreased activation in PCC in meditators is common across different meditation types. n = 12 per group.
What does this mean?
You may ask what this means and how it relates to mindfulness and mind-wandering. It suggests that adept meditators spend less time using the self-reflective network or “DMN” while meditating. This makes sense given the heavy reliance on concentration in these practices. But how about when adepts are simply “wandering” during passive rest? Are they like everyone else? Do they also reflect upon themselves in the past or into the future? This study did not quite capture the phenomenological differences between the groups, but it did find that the DMN had different functional connectivity patterns.
Using mPFC as a seed region for connectivity, they found increased connectivity with the fusiform gyrus, inferior temporal and parahippocampal gyri, and left posterior insula (among other regions) in meditators relative to controls during meditation. Using the PCC as a seed region, increased connectivity (compared with controls) was found with the dorsal ACC and DLPFC during all meditative states and baseline wandering, suggesting increased cognitive monitoring and working memory across both meditative and passive resting states. It would be helpful to know if there was a qualitative aspect of “wandering” that was about equal for meditators and controls.
Similarly, David Creswell and Lisa Kilpatrick demonstrated that 8-weeks of MBSR training showed increased functional connectivity of dmPFC (an anterior DMN region) with an auditory/salience neural network (especially with BA 22/39 (associated with auditory processing) and the dorsal ACC (involved in salience) . They suggest these results indicate greater positive coherence between self-referential, attention, and auditory sensory processing and may underlie greater attention and reflective awareness of auditory experience in MBSR trained subjects.
Again, the DMN is used here as a proxy for a “wandering mind”. Decreased activity in the cortical midline structures that make up this network reflects less self-reflection or narrative self-processing, and suggests more present-centered awareness, monitoring, and attention of interoceptive and exteroceptive stimuli in the environment and associated with the body. The reason I bring attention to this area of research is that contemplative neuroscientists will likely have to take these differences in the DMN between novices and adepts into consideration when scanning meditative states. In other words, a passive mind wandering state may be different between adepts and novices or naives. Thus, between groups comparisons should likely account for these differences and at the very least, quantify the qualitative aspects of mind wandering between groups.
ON THE OTHER HAND….
There is some evidence that mind wandering is adaptive. One study (for example) by Jonathan Schooler and colleagues demonstrates that increased mind wandering during a boring task increased creativity. Schooler has previously demonstrated a correlation between daydreaming and creativity—those who are more prone to mind-wandering tend to be better at generating new ideas.
See New Yorker write up [Link]
Here are some links to press related to these studies:
psychology today [Link]
- Meditation May Help Brains Rewire, Protect Against Mental Illness – KABC (kabc.com)
- Mind-wandering and mindfulness (psychologytoday.com)
- Our Wandering Minds…. (joannewellington.wordpress.com)
- MIND AND HEALTH Relax your mind and focus (tech.mit.edu)
- Meditation leads to less mind wandering, more doing (mentalflowers.wordpress.com)
The development of mindfulness as a state and trait may not only be helpful for reducing stress and improving attention-related processing, but also for improving empathic ability. This is a critical skill that all caregivers could benefit from. A recent NY Times article [Link] discusses the implications of training for caregivers like MDs and two faculty that are actively doing this in Rochester, NY: Dr. Michael S. Krasner, an associate professor of clinical medicine at Rochester and one of the study authors. He, along with his co-author Dr. Ronald Epstein, a professor of family medicine, psychiatry and oncology at Rochester,
This paper is one of the first to begin deconstructing the concept into component processes for investigation both at the clinical and basic science level. Previous attempts at operationalizing the concept have relied on the most widely cited:
moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a specific way, that is, in the present moment, and as non-reactively, as non-, and openheartedly as possible. When it is cultivated intentionally, it is sometimes referred to as deliberate . When it spontaneously arises, as it tends to do more and more the more it is cultivated intentionally, it is sometimes referred to as effortless mindfulness.
Other attempts at operationalizing the concept have relied on this definition for a framework. See table below
Here, we unpack the definition by illustrating very specific core neurocognitive processes that appear to be targeted in cultivating mindfulness as a state and trait. These processes are supported by the extant literature with specific neuroanatomical targets as well
I elaborate a bit more on dismantling mindfulness here [Link]
- Dreyfus, G. (2011). “Is mindfulness present-centred and non-judgmental? A discussion of the cognitive dimensions of mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism: An Journal 12(1): 41 – 54.
- Dunne, J. (2011). “Toward an understanding of non-dual mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12(1): 71 – 88.
- Williams, J. M. G. and J. Kabat-Zinn (2011). “Mindfulness: diverse perspectives on its meaning, origins, and multiple applications at the intersection of science and dharma.” Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12(1): 1 –
- Gethin, R. (2011). “On some definitions of mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12(1): 263 – 279.
Many researchers now agree that mindfulness can be thought of as multi-dimensional set of skills that can be developed through the practice of specific types of meditation; however, we need to be careful not to confuse the concept of mindfulness with the common every-day usage of the term and contextualize the concept as a state, trait, type of practice, and intervention.
Media coverage for this paper:
Psych Central: “Meditation improves quality of life” [Link]
Huffington Post: “Why Mindfulness Meditation makes us healthier” [Link]
The Secular Buddhist interviews Dr. Holzel concerning this paper here [Link]
Through my work with the Mind and Life Institute, I kept some statistics on the number and types of grants that were being awarded in the area of contemplative science. I also kept track of publication records. Here are some of those statistics (through 2010) to give you a sense of where this field is coming from and the steep slope indicating where it may be going.
Peer-reviewed publications as referenced by PubMed (through 2010) is indicated. Pubmed is a division of the US National Library of Medicine and the National Institute of Health. It comprises more than 20 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and online books. Citations may include links to full-text content from PubMed Central and publisher web sites. The dotted line indicates when the Mind and Life Institute’s Summer Research Institute began in 2004.
The graph above represents the number of grants awarded by the NIH through 2010. The RePorter database reports data and analyses of NIH research activities
The Mind & Life Summer Research Institute was yet again a successful week-long venture into the depths of contemplative science. For a description of the program and its purpose see [Link]. For pictures see picasa [Link] or Flikr [Link] and a montage with Ottmar Liebert is on youtube [Link]. (photos by Dave Vago and Dave Womack)
This was my 7th year attending the SRI and every year since 2005, scientists in this field grapple with operationalizing and deconstructing concepts that originate from an incredibly rich and complex historical context – The Buddhist “science of mind” . With an explosion of research and interest in the domain of mindfulness, science has yet to grasp the subtleties surrounding the heterogeneity of meditation practice and specifically those that seemingly cultivate mindfulness as a state, trait, and in terms of clinical interventions.
This year’s theme was devoted to the theme of ”New Frontiers in the Contemplative Sciences.” It was also paying tribute to Franciso Varela, the pioneer of neurophenomenology and the Mind and Life dialogues. A continued in-depth tri-logue has been the prescription that emerges for pushing this emerging field of contemplative science further…a trilogue between scientists, contemplative scholars/practitioners, and academics who have the ability to translate what one perspective or source of information can benefit in dissemination or integration with the other two. By continuing this trilogue, scientists will better be able to distinguish between what they should be studying, what they think they should be studying, and what they truly are studying….
This also translates to the practitioner him/herself who must distinguish between what he/she is doing while meditating in a specific style of practice, what they think they should be doing while practicing, and what they actually are doing. John Dunne, a Buddhist contemplative scholar/academic provided one of the more thought provoking presentations by challenging our conceptions of meditation and mindfulness as ‘Black box’ terms. He emphasized, “Historical contexts are not important if people are practicing something else”. Essentially, as scientists in this field, we MUST be absolutely clear what states of mind we are studying when we claim to be studying mindfulness.
Can meditation practice eliminate pain? NO, but it can it reduce the emotional intensity in which it is anticipated and experienced!
There have been a few studies up to today (jan. 4, 2012) that have investigated the effects of specific meditative practices that involve the state of mindfulness on the experience of pain. Some studies suggest that pain centers (Anterior cingulate cortex, insular cortex, sensory cortex, pre-frontal cortex) that are normally active during acute pain are significantly reduced in activity while performing specific meditative practices. Other studies show the same reduction during resting brain activity of chronic pain sufferers in response to practicing these meditative states, specifically, and in contrast to allowing one’s mind to wander. These reports typically show increased pre-frontal cortex activity as a regulatory mechanism for suppressing the sensory and affective experience of pain. See this typical report from the BBC:
However, there are other reports that suggest meditators are not suppressing the sensory or affective experience of pain, but rather increasing their sensory and affective experience of pain, but without a prolonged, dull, or negative quality. In this case, research is beginning to reveal what may be more akin to equanimity and embodiment, two qualities that typically are cultivated along with mindfulness during specific meditative practices. Equanimity refers to the ability to experience the sensory event fully, with awareness, but to return back to some normative baseline rapidly once the sensory event is over. There is no ruminative quality, or perseveration of the emotion in response to the sensory event. Embodiment refers to the whole-body visceral experience of the sensory event. These studies have been showing increased activation in brain areas responsible for primary and associative sensory processing along with interoception (internal bodily experience).
One example comes from a study by friend and colleague, Fadel Zeidan, who recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience, ” Brain Mechanisms Supporting the Modulation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation” [Link]
Focused Attention meditation reduced BOLD activity related to afferent processing of pain stimulus (primary sensory cortex). Meditation was also associated with deactivations in areas related to ruminative types of thinking (Default areas). Decreased pain intensity ratings were also found to be associated with increased activity in ACC and right anterior insula, suggesting a site for pain modulation.
the NPR story is here [Link]
The CNN-health story is here [Link]
Huffington Post [Link]
Men’s Health [Link]
Music for Meditation [Link]
Live Science [Link]
- Meditation as Medicine (Neurology Now)
- How Mindfulness Meditation Can Help People With Rheumatoid Arthritis (huffingtonpost.com)
- How Meditation Changes Pain, Relieves Depression (psychologytoday.com)
- How Meditation Might Relieve Pain (forbes.com)
- To Soothe Chronic Pain, Meditation Proves Better Than Pills (sott.net)
There have been a number of studies investigating the effects of mindfulness and other forms of meditation training on the experience of pain, acutely or in chronic states. Below are just a few examples from 2009-2010
1. Brown, C. A. & Jones, A. K. P. (2010). Meditation experience predicts less negative appraisal of pain: Electrophysiological evidence for the involvement of anticipatory neural responses. Pain, 150(3), 428-438.
2. Cho, S., Heiby, E. M., McCracken, L. M., Lee, S. M., & Moon, D. E. (2010). Pain-Related anxiety as a mediator of the effects of mindfulness on physical and psychosocial functioning in chronic pain patients in Korea. The Journal of Pain, 11(8), 789-97.
3. Cusens, B., Duggan, G. B., Thorne, K., & Burch, V. (2010). Evaluation of the breathworks mindfulness-based pain management programme: Effects on well-being and multiple measures of mindfulness. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 17(1), 63-78.
4. Goyal, M., Haythornthwaite, J., Levine, D., Becker, D., Vaidya, D., Hill-Briggs, F., et al. (2010). Intensive meditation for refractory pain and symptoms. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16(6), 627-31.
5. Grant, J. A., Courtemanche, J., Duerden, E. G., Duncan, G. H., & Rainville, P. (2010). Cortical thickness and pain sensitivity in Zen meditators. Emotion, 10(1), 43-54.
6. Perlman, D. M., Salomons, T. V., Davidson, R. J., & Lutz, A. (2010). Differential effects on pain intensity and unpleasantness of two meditation practices. Emotion, 10(1), 65-71.
7. Rosenzweig, S., Greeson, J. M., Reibel, D. K., Green, J. S., Jasser, S. A., & Beasley, D. (2010). Mindfulness-Based stress reduction for chronic pain conditions: Variation in treatment outcomes and role of home meditation practice. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 68(1), 29-36.
8. Teixeira, E. (2010). The effect of mindfulness meditation on painful diabetic peripheral neuropathy in adults older than 50 years. Holistic Nursing Practice, 24(5), 277-83.
9. Zeidan, F., Johnson, S. K., Diamond, B. J., David, Z., & Goolkasian, P. (2010). Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition, 19(2), 597-605.
10. Grant, J. A., & Rainville, P. (2009). Pain sensitivity and analgesic effects of mindful states in zen meditators: A crosssectional study. Psychosom Med, 71(1), 106.
11. McCracken, L. M., & Keogh, E. (2009). Acceptance, mindfulness, and values-based action may counteract fear and avoidance of emotions in chronic pain: An analysis of anxiety sensitivity. Journal of Pain, 10(4), 408-415.
12. Rosenzweig, S., Greeson, J. M., Reibel, D. K., Green, J. S., Jasser, S. A., & Beasley, D. (2009). Mindfulness-Based stress reduction for chronic pain conditions: Variation in treatment outcomes and role of home meditation practice. J Psychosom Res.
13. Zeidan, F., Gordon, N. S., Merchant, J., & Goolkasian, P. (2009). The effects of brief mindfulness meditation training on experimentally induced pain. Journal of Pain.
This also brings up the issue of PLACEBO. There are plenty of studies to demonstrate that negative expectation can enhance the negative experience. For example, a recent study published in Science Translational Medicine by Bingel and colleagues (“The Effect of Treatment Expectation on Drug Efficacy: Imaging the Analgesic Benefit of the Opioid Remifentanil” – [Link]) found that the effectiveness of pain killers on thermal pain decreased with expectation of receiving pain killers, while just the expectation alone of NOT receiving pain killers exacerbated the pain. In other words, the amount of potent opioid received was constant and the reported experience of pain changed in intensity depending upon expectancy.
I bring up Placebo not to make a point that the effects of mindfulness or meditation training can be reduced to a placebo response, but more so to emphasize the powerful capability of the mind to profoundly change experience of the world depending upon OUR EXPECTATION!
As it turns out, the mechanisms of pain may be fairly clear (see Melzack’s original 1965 SCIENCE article HERE), but the biopsychsocial influences on the interpretation of pain signals is far from being completely understood. Although over 50 billion dollars is spent on the global pain industry in prescription and over-the-counter pills…these remedies are typically little help, while some like morphine and other opiates can be highly addictive and subject to abuse.
The following list includes Education, Dharma, and research-related centers across the world interested in mindfulness and meditation
Contemplative & Mindfulness-related Resources (Centers and websites)
2. UMASS – center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society (JKZ) [Link]
2. Mindful.org – A Shambhala Sun publication [Link]
3. Mindfulness.org.au – [Link]
4. Mind Body Awareness Project [Link]
5. Mindful Research Guide (David Black) – [Link]
6. The Mindfulness Center [Link]
7. Mindsight Institute [Link]
10. Metro-Area Research Group on Awareness & Meditation (MARGAM) [Link]
Mindfulness-related Research Centers
1. Harvard Medical School –
a. Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory (BWH) – [Link]
b. Benson Henry Institute for Mind-body Medicine – [Link]
c. Lazar lab (MGH) – [Link]
d. Neuroscience of Meditation, Healing, and Sense of Touch (Kerr lab) – [Link]
e. Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders (Hoge Lab) – [Link]
f. Khalsa Lab on Yoga Research [Link]
2. Roemer Research Team at UMASS – Boston [Link]
3. Emotion, Brain & Behavior lab at Tufts University [Link]
5. Stanford cCARE – Center for Compassion & Altruism Research & Education [Link]
7. University of California, Davis Center for Mind and Brain – Saron Lab (Shamatha project) [Link]
8. Britton lab (Brown) of Contemplative, Clinical, and Affective Neuroscience [Link]
9. Kent State University – Psychopathology and Emotion Regulation (Fresco) lab [Link]
10. The Jha Lab – University of Miami – Exploring the Stability and Mutability of Attention & Working Memory [Link]
11. Penn Program for Mindfulness [Link]
14. University of Toronto – dept. of psychiatry (Zindel Segal) – [Link]
15. Atlanta Mindfulness Institute [Link]
16. Institute for Mindfulness-Based Approaches (Germany) [Link]
17. Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies [Link]
18. Seattle Pacific University Lustyk Lab [link]
20. University of California, San Diego Center for Mindfulness [link]
Mindfulness-related Clinical-based Research Centers
1. Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy – Boston [link]
2. Society for Clinical Mindfulness and Meditation [link]
3. Duke Integrative Medicine [link]
4. Center for Mindfulness and Psychotherapy – LA [link]
5. Center for Therapeutic Neuroscience – Yale (Jud Brewer) [Link]
6. Center for Mindful Eating [link]
7. National Center for Complimentary & Alternative Medicine [link]
7. Mindfulness Practice Center at the University of Missouri [link]
8. Mindfulness Practice Center at the University of Vermont [link]
9. Mindfulness Training Institute of Washington [link]
10. Mindfulness-based Relapse Prevention (Univ. of Washington) [Link]
11. eMindful Evidence-Based Mind Body Wellness [Link]
12. Mindful Living Center [Link]
Mindfulness-related Education Centers
1. Association for Mindfulness in Education [Link]
2. EDUTOPIA – The George Lucas Educational Foundation [Link]
3. SMART – Stress Management and Relaxation Techniques in Education [Link]
4. CASEL – Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning [Link]
5. Brown University Contemplative Sciences Initiative [Link]
6. Center for Contemplative Mind in Society [Link]
7. Garrison Institute – CARE – Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education [Link]
8. Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education [Link]
9. Lifespan Learning Institute [Link]
Mindfulness-related Dharma Centers
1. Insight Meditation Society (IMS), Barre, MA [link]
2. Spirit Rock Meditation Center [Link]
3. Cambridge Insight Meditation Society [Link]
4. Boston Rigpa Meditation Center [Link]
5. Still Quiet Place [link]
As clinicians, researchers, and basic scientists, we are slowly operationalizing the concept of mindfulness. It is important that we consider the cultural context from which the term arises and clearly distinguish it from secular practices like:
These practices all involve:
Cultivation of Mental Discipline, primarily through discursive strategies.
Heightened ability to stop and start thoughts and emotions
Reduced susceptibility to mental habits; increased ability to develop new habits
What makes us happy? Are there correlates in the brain? Can positive emotions like happiness find a place in rigorous scientific research?