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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.
This study investigated the link between meditation, self-reported mindfulness and cognitive flexibility as well as other attentional functions. It compared a group of meditators experienced in mindfulness meditation with a meditation-naïve control group on measures of Stroop interference and the “d2-concentration and endurance test”. Overall the results suggest that attentional performance and cognitive flexibility are positively related to meditation practice and levels of mindfulness. Meditators performed significantly better than non-meditators on all measures of attention. Furthermore, self-reported mindfulness was higher in meditators than non-meditators and correlations with all attention measures were of moderate to high strength. This pattern of results suggests that mindfulness is intimately linked to improvements of attentional functions and cognitive flexibility. The relevance of these findings for mental balance and well-being are discussed.
Meditation is a mental training, which involves attention and the ability to maintain focus on a particular object. In this study we have applied a specific attentional task to simply measure the performance of the participants with different levels of meditation experience, rather than evaluating meditation practice per se or task performance during meditation. Our objective was to evaluate the performance of regular meditators and non-meditators during an fMRI adapted Stroop Word-Colour Task (SWCT), which requires attention and impulse control, using a block design paradigm. We selected 20 right-handed regular meditators and 19 non-meditators matched for age, years of education and gender. Participants had to choose the colour (red, blue or green) of single words presented visually in three conditions: congruent, neutral and incongruent. Non-meditators showed greater activity than meditators in the right medial frontal, middle temporal, precentral and postcentral gyri and the lentiform nucleus during the incongruent conditions. No regions were more activated in meditators relative to non-meditators in the same comparison. Non-meditators showed an increased pattern of brain activation relative to regular meditators under the same behavioural performance level. This suggests that meditation training improves efficiency, possibly via improved sustained attention and impulse control.
The scientific interest in meditation and mindfulness practice has recently seen an unprecedented surge. After an initial phase of presenting beneficial effects of mindfulness practice in various domains, research is now seeking to unravel the underlying psychological and neurophysiological mechanisms. Advances in understanding these processes are required for improving and fine-tuning mindfulness-based interventions that target specific conditions such as eating disorders or attention deficit hyperactivity disorders. This review presents a theoretical framework that emphasizes the central role of attentional control mechanisms in the development of mindfulness skills. It discusses the phenomenological level of experience during meditation, the different attentional functions that are involved, and relates these to the brain networks that subserve these functions. On the basis of currently available empirical evidence specific processes as to how attention exerts its positive influence are considered and it is concluded that meditation practice appears to positively impact attentional functions by improving resource allocation processes. As a result, attentional resources are allocated more fully during early processing phases which subsequently enhance further processing. Neural changes resulting from a pure form of mindfulness practice that is central to most mindfulness programs are considered from the perspective that they constitute a useful reference point for future research. Furthermore, possible interrelations between the improvement of attentional control and emotion regulation skills are discussed.
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.