Among the cognitive training literature, meditation interventions are particularly unique in that they often emphasize emotional or affective processing at least as much as classical ‘top-down’ attentional control. While much of the training literature focuses on cognitive abilities like sustained attention and working memory, many investigating meditation training have begun to study the plasticity of affective function, myself included.  A recent study by Helen Weng and colleagues in Wisconsin investigated just this question, asking if compassion (“loving-kindness”) meditation can alter altruistic behavior and associated neural processing.
Specifically, Weng et al tested the impact of loving-kindness compassion meditation or emotion reappraisal training on an emotion regulation fMRI task and behavioral economic game measuring altruistic behavior.
Together these results implicate training-related BOLD activity increases to emotional stimuli in the parietal attention network and increased parietal connectivity with regions implicated in cognitive control and reward processing, in the observed altruistic behavior differences. These studies highlight a few promising domains for harnessing neural plasticity, particularly in the realm of visual attention, cognitive control, and emotional training. We set out to investigate one particularly popular intervention, mindfulness meditation, while controlling for these factors. We addressed these difficulties in an investigation of functional and structural neural plasticity before and after a 6-week active-controlled mindfulness intervention. Allen M, Dietz M, Blair KS, van Beek M, Rees G, Vestergaard-Poulsen P, Lutz A, Roepstorff A (2012) Cognitive-Affective Neural Plasticity following Active-Controlled Mindfulness Intervention.
Davidson RJ (2010) Empirical explorations of mindfulness: conceptual and methodological conundrums. Grossman P, Niemann L, Schmidt S, Walach H (2004) Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Hofmann SG, Sawyer AT, Witt AA, Oh D (2010) The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Lutz A, Brefczynski-Lewis J, Johnstone T, Davidson RJ (2008a) Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: effects of meditative expertise.
Lutz A, Slagter HA, Dunne JD, Davidson RJ (2008b) Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Sedlmeier P, Eberth J, Schwarz M, Zimmermann D, Haarig F, Jaeger S, Kunze S (2012) The psychological effects of meditation: A meta-analysis.
The paper, “Brief body-scan meditation practice improves somatosensory perceptual decision making”, appeared in this month’s issue of Consciousness and Cognition.
Mirams et al found that, even when controlling for a host of baseline factors including trait mindfulness and baseline somatic attention, MT led to a greater increase in d’ driven by significantly reduced false-alarms. While MT certainly does involve these features, it is arguable that the interoceptive elements are more specific to the precise mechanisms of interest (they are what you actually train), whereas the attentional benefits may be more of a kind of side effect, reflecting an early emphasis in MT on establishing attention. First, depending on what brought you here, you may already be wondering why mindfulness is an interesting subject, particularly for a cognitive neuroscientist. Generally speaking, when you want to investigate some cognitive phenomena, a firm understanding of your target is essential to successful neuroimaging.
At the simplest level of description [mindfulness] meditation is just a process of becoming aware, whether through actual sitting meditation, exercise, or daily rituals.  Meditation (as a practice) was first popularized in the west during the rise of transcendental meditation (TM). It’s easy to see from the above why when Jon Kabat-Zinn re-introduced meditation to the West, he relied heavily on the medical community to develop a totally secularized intervention-oriented version of meditation strategically called “mindfulness-based stress reduction.” The arrival of MBSR was closely related to the development of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), a revision of cognitive-behavioral therapy utilizing mindful practices and instruction for a variety of clinical applications. Indeed, most of what we know about these mindfulness and neuroplasticity comes from studies of either advanced practitioners (compared to controls) or “wait-list” control studies where controls receive no intervention. Research to date links mindfulness practices to alterations in health and physiology, cognitive control, emotional regulation, responsiveness to pain, and a large array of positive clinical outcomes. I’m sure you can quickly see how it is extremely important to control for these factors if we are to isolate and understand the mechanisms important for mindfulness training. While the EAT served as a behavioral measure of basic cognitive processes, we also wanted to examine the neural correlates of attention and emotion, to see how they might respond to mindfulness training in our intervention. Mindfulness and meditation offer a host of benefits that we’re still learning about via scientific studies.


Many people are sceptical of the meditation and mindfulness buzz, but there’s substantial evidence that they could help in a variety of ways. For the fMRI task, participants viewed emotional pictures (IAPS) depicting suffering or neutral scenarios and either practiced a compassion meditation or reappraisal strategy to regulate their emotional response, before and after training. The authors conclude that compassion training may alter emotional processing through a novel mechanism, where top-down central-executive circuits redirect emotional information to areas associated with positive reward, reflecting the role of compassion meditation in emphasizing increased positive emotion to the aversive states of others.
Of course, without a baseline altruism measure it is difficult to make a strong conclusion about the causal impact of the meditation training on altruism behavior, but at least their neural data are shielded from this concern. By randomizing novices to a brief ‘dose’ of action video game or meditation training, researchers can go beyond mere cross-section and make inferences regarding the causality of training on observed neural outcomes.
Further we found that MT participants show significantly greater increases in recruitment of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex than did controls, a region implicated in cognitive control and working memory. Laura Mirams et al set out to answer a very simple question regarding the impact of meditation training (MT) on a “somatic signal detection task” (SSDT). Thus in a traditional meditation class, you might first learn some techniques to fixate your attention, and then later learn to deploy your attention to specific bodily targets (i.e. The first thing to clarify is that there is no such thing as “meditation”- rather meditation is really term describing a family resemblance of highly varied practices, covering an array of both spiritual and secular practices.
Mindfulness practice is typically described as involving at least two practices; focused attention (FA) and open monitoring (OM).
When answering this question it is important to note two things about the state of current mindfulness research. However, the explicit nature of mindfulness training makes for some particularly difficult methodological issues. What is perhaps less appreciated is that cognitive measures, particularly reaction time, are easily biased by phenomena like the Hawthorne effect, where the amount of attention participants receive directly contributes to experimental outcome. As it was crucial that both groups believed in their training, we needed an instructor who could match the high level of enthusiasm and experience found in our meditation instructors. As we were interested in the effect of meditation on both attention and meta-cognition, we used an “error-awareness task” (EAT) to examine improvement in these areas. This popularity is largely due to promising findings indicating good efficacy of meditation training (MT) for emotion processing and cognitive control (Sedlmeier et al., 2012). The study is well designed; after randomization, both groups received audio CDs with 15 minutes of daily body-scan meditation or excerpts from The Lord of The Rings.
The idea that MT should impact interoception and somatosensation is very sensible- in most (novice) meditation practices it is common to focus attention to bodily sensations of, for example, the breath entering the nostril. Further the intervention chosen is extremely simple and well described; it is just a basic body-scan meditation without additional fluff or fanfare, lending to mechanistic specificity. A pure active control might have been a book describing anatomy or body parts; then we could exhaustively conclude that not only is it interoception driving the findings, but the particular form of interoceptive attention deployed by meditation training.
In the end I am quite happy with the finished product, and I do believe my colleagues and I managed to produce a useful result for the field of mindfulness training and neuroplasticity. Meditation or “contemplative” practices have existed for more than a thousand years and are found in nearly every spiritual tradition.
First, while it is true that many who research MT are also practitioners, the primary scholars are researchers who started in classical areas (emotion, clinical psychiatry, cognitive neuroscience) and gradually became involved in MT research. Active-control allows you exclude numerous factors from your outcome, potentially including the role of social support, expectation, and experimental demands. This is exactly what we set out to do in our study, where we recruited 60 meditation-naive subjects, scanned them on an fMRI task, randomized them to either six weeks of MT or active-control, and then measured everything again. As you can see, there are positive benefits across all aspects of our lives, emotional, physical, cognitive and social. To date only one previous active-controlled study investigated the role of compassion meditation on empathy-related neuroplasticity.


Although we have a long way to go, and these are certainly fair questions, I do believe that the study of meditation has a lot to contribute to our understanding of cognition and plasticity. While mindfulness research still has a ways to go, our understanding of these practices is rapidly evolving.
More recently, here in the west our unending fascination of the esoteric has lead to a popular rise in Yoga, Tai Chi, and other physically oriented contemplative practices, all of which incorporate an element of meditation.
As TM became known as  a cult, meditation research underwent a dark age where publishing on the topic could seriously damage a research career.
Indeed, it is always possible that having a big fancy brain makes you more likely to spend many years meditating, and not that meditating gives you a big fancy brain. Reading groups are a fun, attention demanding exercise, with purported benefits for stress and well-being. To assess the impact of meditation on performing the AST, we examined reaction times in a model with factors group, time, task, and emotion. I do believe that mindfulness has an important role to play in both self-awareness and well-being, and hope that the models I am currently developing might one day further refine our understanding of these practices. However that study compared compassion meditation with a memory strategy course, which (in my opinion) exposes it to serious criticism regarding demand characteristic.
We also found task-related increases in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex following active-controlled meditation, although in the left hemisphere and for a very different kind of training and task. Understanding the neural mechanism underlying such benefits remains difficult however, as most existing investigations are cross-sectional in nature or depend upon inadequate “wait-list” passive control groups.
In this sense, Mirams et al have controlled for instruction, motivation, intervention context, baseline trait mindfulness, and even isolated the variable of interest- only the MT group worked with interoception, though both exerted a prolonged period of sustained attention. While a great deal of work remains to be done, initial cognitive-behavioral and clinical research on mindfulness training (MT) has shown that these practices can improve the allocation of attentional resources, reduce physiological stress, and improve emotional well-being. It is of course important to be aware of the impact prior beliefs can have on conducting impartial research, but with respect to today’s meditation and mindfulness researchers, I believe that most if not all of the work being done is honest, quality research. So training studies are essential to verifying the claim that mindfulness actually leads to interesting kinds of plasticity. Finally, we made sure to let every participant know at recruitment that they would receive one of two treatments intended to improve attention and well-being, and that any benefits would depend upon their commitment to the practice.
The meditation group by comparison, did not appear to form any lasting social relationships and did not continue meeting after the study. One other recent study of smoking cessation also reported alteration in DLPFC following mindfulness training, leading me to wonder if we’re seeing the emergence of empirical consensus for this region’s specific involvement in meditation training. Accordingly, the large majority of mindfulness research to date has utilized small-scale, often sub-optimal experimental design, sacrificing experimental control in order build a basic idea of the cognitive landscape. To help them practice at home, we created 20-minute long CD’s for both groups, one with a guided meditation and the other with a chapter from Emma. Double-blind design is impossible; by definition subjects will know they are receiving mindfulness.
All together a great study that raises the bar for training research in cognitive neuroscience!



How to deal with a difficult boss funny
Simplify your life
Christian meditation music instrumental
No coffee meme