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Neurophenomenological studies seek to utilize first-person self-report to elucidate cognitive processes related to physiological data. Grounded theory offers an approach to the qualitative analysis of self-report, whereby theoretical constructs are derived from empirical data. Here we used grounded theory methodology (GTM) to assess how the first-person experience of meditation relates to neural activity in a core region of the default mode network—the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). We analyzed first-person data consisting of meditators' accounts of their subjective experience during runs of a real time fMRI neurofeedback study of meditation, and third-person data consisting of corresponding feedback graphs of PCC activity during the same runs. We found that for meditators, the subjective experiences of “undistracted awareness” such as “concentration” and “observing sensory experience,” and “effortless doing” such as “observing sensory experience,” “not efforting,” and “contentment,” correspond with PCC deactivation. Further, the subjective experiences of “distracted awareness” such as “distraction” and “interpreting,” and “controlling” such as “efforting” and “discontentment,” correspond with PCC activation. Moreover, we derived several novel hypotheses about how specific qualities of cognitive processes during meditation relate to PCC activity, such as the difference between meditation and “trying to meditate.” These findings offer novel insights into the relationship between meditation and mind wandering or self-related thinking and neural activity in the default mode network, driven by first-person reports.
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Many philosophical and contemplative traditions teach that “living in the moment” increases happiness. However, the default mode of humans appears to be that of mind-wandering, which correlates with unhappiness, and with activation in a network of brain areas associated with self-referential processing. We investigated brain activity in experienced meditators and matched meditation-naive controls as they performed several different meditations (Concentration, Loving-Kindness, Choiceless Awareness). We found that the main nodes of the default-mode network (medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices) were relatively deactivated in experienced meditators across all meditation types. Furthermore, functional connectivity analysis revealed stronger coupling in experienced meditators between the posterior cingulate, dorsal anterior cingulate, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices (regions previously implicated in self-monitoring and cognitive control), both at baseline and during meditation. Our findings demonstrate differences in the default-mode network that are consistent with decreased mind-wandering. As such, these provide a unique understanding of possible neural mechanisms of meditation.