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The present investigation examined the contributions of specific attentional networks to long-term trait effects of meditation. It was hypothesized that meditation could improve the efficiency of executive processing (inhibits prepotent/incorrect responses) or orientational processing (orients to specific objects in the attentional field). Participants (50 meditators and 10 controls) were given the Stroop (measures executive attention) and Global-Local Letters (measures orientational attention) tasks. Results showed that meditation experience was associated with reduced interference on the Stroop task (p < 0.03), in contrast with a lack of effect on interference in the Global-Local Letters task. This suggests that meditation produces long-term increases in the efficiency of the executive attentional network (anterior cingulate/prefrontal cortex) but no effect on the orientation network (parietal systems). The amount of time participants spent meditating each day, rather than the total number of hours of meditative practice over their lifetime, was negatively correlated with interference on the Stroop task (r = −0.31, p < 0.005).
The influence of approach and avoidance tendencies on affect, reasoning, and behavior has attracted substantial interest from researchers across various areas of psychology. Currently, frontal electroencephalographic (EEG) asymmetry in favor of left prefrontal regions is assumed to reflect the propensity to respond with approach-related tendencies. To test this hypothesis, we recorded resting EEG in 18 subjects, who separately performed a verbal memory task under three incentive conditions (neutral, reward, and punishment). Using a source-localization technique, we found that higher task-independent alpha2 (10.5-12 Hz) activity within left dorsolateral prefrontal and medial orbitofrontal regions was associated with stronger bias to respond to reward-related cues. Left prefrontal resting activity accounted for 54.8% of the variance in reward bias. These findings not only confirm that frontal EEG asymmetry modulates the propensity to engage in appetitively motivated behavior, but also provide anatomical details about the underlying brain systems.
The development of social emotions such as compassion is crucial for successful social interactions as well as for the maintenance of mental and physical health, especially when confronted with distressing life events. Yet, the neural mechanisms supporting the training of these emotions are poorly understood. To study affective plasticity in healthy adults, we measured functional neural and subjective responses to witnessing the distress of others in a newly developed task (Socio-affective Video Task). Participants’ initial empathic responses to the task were accompanied by negative affect and activations in the anterior insula and anterior medial cingulate cortex—a core neural network underlying empathy for pain. Whereas participants reacted with negative affect before training, compassion training increased positive affective experiences, even in response to witnessing others in distress. On the neural level, we observed that, compared with a memory control group, compassion training elicited activity in a neural network including the medial orbitofrontal cortex, putamen, pallidum, and ventral tegmental area—brain regions previously associated with positive affect and affiliation. Taken together, these findings suggest that the deliberate cultivation of compassion offers a new coping strategy that fosters positive affect even when confronted with the distress of others.
The capacity to self-generate mental content that is unrelated to the current environment is a fundamental characteristic of the mind, and the current experiment explored how this experience is related to the decisions that people make in daily life. We examined how task-unrelated thought (TUT) varies with the length of time participants are willing to wait for an economic reward, as measured using an inter-temporal discounting task. When participants performed a task requiring minimal attention, the greater the amount of time spent engaged in TUT the longer the individual was prepared to wait for an economic reward. These data indicate that self-generated thought engages processes associated with the successful management of long-term goals. Although immersion in the here and now is undeniably advantageous, under appropriate conditions the capacity to let go of the present and consider more pertinent personal goals may have its own rewards.
Appropriate social problem solving constitutes a critical skill for individuals and may rely on processes important for self-generated thought (SGT). The aim of the current study was to investigate the link between SGT and social problem solving. Using the Means-End Problem Solving task (MEPS), we assessed participants' abilities to resolve daily social problems in terms of overall efficiency and number of relevant means they provided to reach the given solution. Participants also performed a non-demanding choice reaction time task (CRT) and a moderately-demanding working memory task (WM) as a context in which to measure their SGT (assessed via thought sampling). We found that although overall SGT was associated with lower MEPS efficiency, it was also associated with higher relevant means, perhaps because both depend on the capacity to generate cognition that is independent from the hear and now. The specific content of SGT did not differentially predict individual differences in social problem solving, suggesting that the relationship may depend on SGT regardless of its content. In addition, we also found that performance at the WM but not the CRT was linked to overall better MEPS performance, suggesting that individuals good at social processing are also distinguished by their capacity to constrain attention to an external task. Our results provide novel evidence that the capacity for SGT is implicated in the process by which solutions to social problems are generated, although optimal problem solving may be achieved by individuals who display a suitable balance between SGT and cognition derived from perceptual input.