Neuroscience of meditation and attention

This month’s Trends in Cognitive Sciences has a fantastic review article on the neuroscience of meditation – focusing on how the contemplative practice alters and sharpens the brain’s attention systems.

The full article is available online as a pdf, and discusses what cognitive science studies have told us about the short and long-term impact of meditation on the mind and brain.

Meditation is now being quite extensively studied by cognitive science owing to the clear effects it has on the brain, and on the increasing evidence for its benefit in mental health.

A recent review of ‘mindfulness’ meditation-based therapy found that although research is in its early stages and not all possibilities have been ruled out, there’s good evidence from the existing RCTs that it’s particularly good in preventing relapse in severe depression.

The Trends article, which largely focused on the neuroscience research, makes the distinction between two types of meditation: ‘focused attention’ meditation – that involves focusing on a particular thing and refocusing if you become distracted by thoughts or sensations; and ‘open monitoring’ meditation which involves nonreactively monitoring the content of experience and acting as almost a detached observer to feelings and mental events.

This is an excerpt where the authors discuss the experimental evidence for the long-term ‘open monitoring’ or OM meditation:

Long-term practice of OM meditation is also thought to result in enduring changes in mental and brain function. Specifically, because OM meditation fosters nonreactive awareness of the stream of experience without deliberate selection of a primary object, intensive practice can be expected to reduce the elaborative thinking that would be stimulated by evaluating or interpreting a selected object. In line with this idea, Slagter et al. recently found that three months of intensive OM meditation reduced elaborative processing of the first of two target stimuli (T1 and T2) presented in a rapid stream of distracters…

Because participants were not engaged in formal meditation during task performance, these results provide support for the idea that one effect of an intensive training in OM meditation might be reduction in the propensity to ‘get stuck’ on a target, as reflected in less elaborate stimulus processing and the development of efficient mechanisms to engage and then disengage from target stimuli in response to task demands. From the description in Box 2,we anticipate a similar improvement in the capacity to disengage from aversive emotional stimuli following OM training, enabling greater emotional flexibility.

Moreover, the article includes many other studies that have reported interesting effects. For example, highly experienced focused attention meditators need minimal effort to sustain attentional focus, while even short courses on meditation can improve attention and decrease stress.

Most of the techniques are taken from Buddhist meditation practices and I’m sure Buddhists are cracking a wry smile as cognitive science is just starting to catch on to what they’ve been noting for thousands of years.

As for the neuroscience, I’m sure the remarkably science-savvy Dalai Lama is fascinated as he’s held a number of conferences with leading researchers to discuss the the intersection between Buddhist practice and cognitive science.

Link to abstract of article.
pdf of full-text.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: