Train in compassion to create a more positive outlook.
Authors: Jazaieri, H., Lee, I. A., McGonigal, K., Jinpa, T., Doty, J. R., Gross, J. J., & Goldin, P. R.
Title: A wandering mind is a less caring mind: Daily experience sampling during compassion meditation training.
Summary: The concept of mind wandering is well known to all of us. It’s the kind of drifting off that we experience when we are not concentrating on a specific activity or goal, people also call it daydreaming or spontaneous thought. If we have a challenging task that requires our full attention we tend to do little or no mind wandering, and conversely, when we are mind wandering we are much less able to concentrate on a task. The two neural networks responsible for task functions and mind wandering respectively are thought to be negatively correlated, when one is more active the other in more passive and vice versa. The benefits of better concentration and task performance are obvious, but we are starting to see that mind wandering may also have a key role to play in our health and wellbeing. This study is one of the few investigations into meditation that acknowledges that mind wandering may have a positive role to play in our lives.
This study investigated the effects of nine weeks of compassion training on 51 adults. As part of my own research into meditation and mind wandering, I have revisited the paper. There are two conclusions that I’d like to draw your attention to. Firstly that the meditation was linked to a decline in mind wandering to neutral topics but an increase towards pleasant topics. That meditation can lead to decreased mind wandering is well known, the highlight of this study is that meditation seemed to change the type of mind wandering. This is highly suggestive that mind wandering has both a qualitative and quantitative aspect. That some forms of mind wandering might actually be beneficial in some way, therefore suppressing mind wandering generally might not of itself be a useful target of any wellbeing intervention.
The evidence that compassionate meditation can naturally draw the mind away from the negative and towards the positive could have profound implications for our health. Mind wandering is spontaneous, it’s not consciously constructed if compassionate meditation leads to a natural increase in positive thoughts, it indicates an association with a range of other cognitive processes. This view is supported by a second finding from the research, that compassionate meditation is linked to augmentation in caring behaviours for oneself and others.
The default mode network has a crucial but poorly understood role in how meditation influences brain structure and function. This paper sets out some of the current thinking regarding self-generated thought.
Authors: Andrews‐Hanna, J. R., Smallwood, J., & Spreng, R. N.
Title: The default network and self‐generated thought: component processes, dynamic control, and clinical relevance
Summary: It is frequently suggested that neuroscience is still in its infancy, this becomes patently clear when you start to consider how little we know about the default mode network (DMN). The DMN, also known as the default network (DN) or the task-negative network (TNN) is most active when humans are in a resting state. In short, the DMN is the network that takes over when we are not actively engaged in a specific task. Surprisingly it was assumed that the brain was resting when not engaged in an externally focussed activity. This assumption was surprising because scientists know that their brains are capable of complex processes such as mind wandering when they are not reacting to the external environment. However, only when it was demonstrated that functional brain activity could reach similar levels in task and non-task modes did the investigation into the DMN begin in earnest. This has particular relevance for meditators and contemplative science, as the DMN is often the direct and indirect target for meditation methods.
Andrews‐Hanna, Smallwood and Spreng produced a review of the leading findings linked to the DMN, which they describe as an anatomically diffuse global network. Their primary focus is the DMN and self-generated thought, thought that arise without external sensory stimulus. Describing much of the recent research in the field they conclude that the DMN plays an integrated role in a wide range of neurological functions. Thus both normal and abnormal mental health is dependent on activity and functional connectivity within the DMN and links to other neural networks. The paper provides a useful background to contemplative scientists looking for an understanding of how meditation might influence human behaviour.
Can meditation stop or reverse neurodegeneration? The answer is yes but the method can’t resolve any problems by itself.
Authors: Newberg, A. B., Serruya, M., Wintering, N., Moss, A. S., Reibel, D., & Monti, D. A.
Title: Meditation and neurodegenerative diseases.
Summary: Meditation research is now so fragmented that only by taking an overview can a fuller understanding of what we know be arrived at. In the research literature, these overviews are called strategic reviews or meta-studies. Newberg and colleagues offer their perspective on what we know about how our brain functions decline and what we can do to stop it. The authors set out the broad definitions for Alzheimer’s Disease, Frontotemporal lobar dementia (FTLD) including Pick’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease, and discuss the potential of meditation to help people with declining brain function.
There is no shortage of evidence for a relationship between meditation and both functional and structural change in the brain, but the devil really is in the detail. In common with a wide range of other behaviours, meditation will have an effect on the brain, but understanding which meditation methods create which effects is not a simple matter. This meta-study describes the influence of meditation into two areas, attention and memory, but it also includes an element of cognition more generally. The paper illustrates evidence for a relationship between meditation and improvements in performance in all three areas (attention, memory and other cognitive functions). Some of these improvements have been linked to recorded physical changes to the brain. Individual studies are discussed demonstrating quite specific effects of meditation practices. For example that vipassana meditation appears to improve working memory and focused attention methods may help sustained visual attention.
Unfortunately, there is almost no replication of the cited effects (replication being identical studies reporting the same results). This report also reduces all meditation to a singular family of mind training, evidence suggests that this is an unscientific approach. Grouping together methods from kundalini, tantra, sutra with MBIs in a meta-review is fraught with difficulty, particularly as robust theoretical frameworks for these practices don’t exist in neuroscience or cognitive psychology. However, in defence of the authors, meditation has been researched in the west for at least 45 years and attempts to understand and review progress should be welcomed.
Meditation and mindfulness may help to keep your brain young
Authors: Fotuhi, M., Lubinski, B., Trullinger, M., Hausterman, N., Riloff, T., Hadadi, M., & Raji, C. A.
Title: A personalized 12‐week ” Brain Fitness Program” for improving cognitive function and increasing the volume of hippocampus in elderly with mild cognitive impairment.
Summary: The idea that brain function inevitably declines as people grow older is firmly established in both clinical and cognitive branches of psychology. This particular study is one of only a handful that I have seen to suggest, that even in retirement, people can maintain and even increase both structure and function in the brain. Participants of retirement age with a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) were asked to engage in a number of activities linked to brain health. They included: cognitive stimulation, Omega 3 supplements, some physical exercise, a change in diet and mindfulness meditation. Participant undertook a range of cognitive tests before the interventions and at the end of the experiment.
Results showed that 84% of participants saw an improvement in their cognitive performance. Further neuroimaging examinations revealed that a majority of a sample of the participants also demonstrated no decline or an actual increase in the volume of the hippocampus. Although this was a preliminary study with a number of methodological problems, it is suggestive that people may have a lot more control over brain structure and function than is generally assumed. This kind of ‘shotgun’ approach can support general theories but adds little to our understanding of the extent to which particular interventions (or combination of interventions) may offer benefit. It also makes the establishment of robust scientific theory a challenge, as no single theory can incorporate such a wide range of activities. For example with a new diet, can cognitive changes be attributed to the food that was no longer being eaten or the new food? Or a combination of the two? However simply to demonstrate that older adults can experience increased structure in certain brain regions is an important contribution to our understanding of the human brain.
Whilst intensive meditation practice may improve cognitive function, sustained daily practice may help maintain it.
Authors: Anthony P. Zanesco, Brandon G. King, Katherine A. MacLean, Clifford D. Saron
Title: Cognitive Ageing and Long-Term Maintenance of Attentional Improvements Following Meditation Training
Summary: Can meditation lead to improvements in cognitive abilities such as attention? Meditation research generally suffers from a shortage of longitudinal studies, therefore this seven-year project should be applauded. Building on their earlier work which examined the effects of a three-month meditation retreat on cognition. This investigation assessed the benefits of sustained practice in the following years. The findings appeared to demonstrate that age-related decline in reaction time was negatively correlated with the continuation of meditation practice (regular practice leading to slower decline), following the intensive three-month retreat. The research broadly concludes that the cognitive benefits achieved through periods of intensive activity may receive protection against age-related decline from regular meditation practice.
In the original retreat at least two forms of meditation were undertaken, a basic mind training and a compassion/empathy based practice, both embedded in a spiritual tradition. Inevitably it is problematic to evaluate the benefits of each of the practices or their interaction effect. As an experienced meditator I should underline that by their very nature, participants willing and able to undertake retreats of three months and sustain meditation practice over several years are probably unrepresentative of meditators generally, let alone the wider population. Limitations of ecological validity are discussed in the study. There was also insufficient information provided regarding the meditation history of participants, their levels of accomplishment, the degree of their theoretical training and information regarding secondary or special practices undertaken since the retreat.