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This study investigated differences in brain activation during meditation between meditators and non-meditators. Fifteen Vipassana meditators (mean practice: 7.9 years, 2 h daily) and fifteen non-meditators, matched for sex, age, education, and handedness, participated in a block-design fMRI study that included mindfulness of breathing and mental arithmetic conditions. For the meditation condition (contrasted to arithmetic), meditators showed stronger activations in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex and the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex bilaterally, compared to controls. Greater rostral anterior cingulate cortex activation in meditators may reflect stronger processing of distracting events. The increased activation in the medial prefrontal cortex may reflect that meditators are stronger engaged in emotional processing.
Previous studies have documented the positive effects of mindfulness meditation on executive control. What has been lacking, however, is an understanding of the mechanism underlying this effect. Some theorists have described mindfulness as embodying two facets—present moment awareness and emotional acceptance. Here, we examine how the effect of meditation practice on executive control manifests in the brain, suggesting that emotional acceptance and performance monitoring play important roles. We investigated the effect of meditation practice on executive control and measured the neural correlates of performance monitoring, specifically, the error-related negativity (ERN), a neurophysiological response that occurs within 100 ms of error commission. Meditators and controls completed a Stroop task, during which we recorded ERN amplitudes with electroencephalography. Meditators showed greater executive control (i.e. fewer errors), a higher ERN and more emotional acceptance than controls. Finally, mediation pathway models further revealed that meditation practice relates to greater executive control and that this effect can be accounted for by heightened emotional acceptance, and to a lesser extent, increased brain-based performance monitoring.
A growing body of evidence suggests that empathy for pain is underpinned by neural structures that are also involved in the direct experience of pain. In order to assess the consistency of this finding, an image-based meta-analysis of nine independent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) investigations and a coordinate-based meta-analysis of 32 studies that had investigated empathy for pain using fMRI were conducted. The results indicate that a core network consisting of bilateral anterior insular cortex and medial/anterior cingulate cortex is associated with empathy for pain. Activation in these areas overlaps with activation during directly experienced pain, and we link their involvement to representing global feeling states and the guidance of adaptive behavior for both self- and other-related experiences. Moreover, the image-based analysis demonstrates that depending on the type of experimental paradigm this core network was co-activated with distinct brain regions: While viewing pictures of body parts in painful situations recruited areas underpinning action understanding (inferior parietal/ventral premotor cortices) to a stronger extent, eliciting empathy by means of abstract visual information about the other's affective state more strongly engaged areas associated with inferring and representing mental states of self and other (precuneus, ventral medial prefrontal cortex, superior temporal cortex, and temporo-parietal junction). In addition, only the picture-based paradigms activated somatosensory areas, indicating that previous discrepancies concerning somatosensory activity during empathy for pain might have resulted from differences in experimental paradigms. We conclude that social neuroscience paradigms provide reliable and accurate insights into complex social phenomena such as empathy and that meta-analyses of previous studies are a valuable tool in this endeavor.
<p>Empathy—the ability to share the feelings of others—is fundamental to our emotional and social lives. Previous human imaging studies focusing on empathy for others' pain have consistently shown activations in regions also involved in the direct pain experience, particularly anterior insula and anterior and midcingulate cortex. These findings suggest that empathy is, in part, based on shared representations for firsthand and vicarious experiences of affective states. Empathic responses are not static but can be modulated by person characteristics, such as degree of alexithymia. It has also been shown that contextual appraisal, including perceived fairness or group membership of others, may modulate empathic neuronal activations. Empathy often involves coactivations in further networks associated with social cognition, depending on the specific situation and information available in the environment. Empathy-related insular and cingulate activity may reflect domain-general computations representing and predicting feeling states in self and others, likely guiding adaptive homeostatic responses and goal-directed behavior in dynamic social contexts.</p>
Pain can be modulated by several cognitive techniques, typically involving increased cognitive control and decreased sensory processing. Recently, it has been demonstrated that pain can also be attenuated by mindfulness. Here, we investigate the underlying brain mechanisms by which the state of mindfulness reduces pain. Mindfulness practitioners and controls received unpleasant electric stimuli in the functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner during a mindfulness and a control condition. Mindfulness practitioners, but not controls, were able to reduce pain unpleasantness by 22% and anticipatory anxiety by 29% during a mindful state. In the brain, this reduction was associated with decreased activation in the lateral prefrontal cortex and increased activation in the right posterior insula during stimulation and increased rostral anterior cingulate cortex activation during the anticipation of pain. These findings reveal a unique mechanism of pain modulation, comprising increased sensory processing and decreased cognitive control, and are in sharp contrast to established pain modulation mechanisms.
The response to painful stimulation depends not only on peripheral nociceptive input but also on the cognitive and affective context in which pain occurs. One contextual variable that affects the neural and behavioral response to nociceptive stimulation is the degree to which pain is perceived to be controllable. Previous studies indicate that perceived controllability affects pain tolerance, learning and motivation, and the ability to cope with intractable pain, suggesting that it has profound effects on neural pain processing. To date, however, no neuroimaging studies have assessed these effects. We manipulated the subjects' belief that they had control over a nociceptive stimulus, while the stimulus itself was held constant. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we found that pain that was perceived to be controllable resulted in attenuated activation in the three neural areas most consistently linked with pain processing: the anterior cingulate, insular, and secondary somatosensory cortices. This suggests that activation at these sites is modulated by cognitive variables, such as perceived controllability, and that pain imaging studies may therefore overestimate the degree to which these responses are stimulus driven and generalizable across cognitive contexts.
The phenomenon of empathy entails the ability to share the affective experiences of others. In recent years social neuroscience made considerable progress in revealing the mechanisms that enable a person to feel what another is feeling. The present review provides an in-depth and critical discussion of these findings. Consistent evidence shows that sharing the emotions of others is associated with activation in neural structures that are also active during the first-hand experience of that emotion. Part of the neural activation shared between self- and other-related experiences seems to be rather automatically activated. However, recent studies also show that empathy is a highly flexible phenomenon, and that vicarious responses are malleable with respect to a number of factors—such as contextual appraisal, the interpersonal relationship between empathizer and other, or the perspective adopted during observation of the other. Future investigations are needed to provide more detailed insights into these factors and their neural underpinnings. Questions such as whether individual differences in empathy can be explained by stable personality traits, whether we can train ourselves to be more empathic, and how empathy relates to prosocial behavior are of utmost relevance for both science and society.