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It has long been theorised that there are two temporally distinct forms of self-reference: extended self-reference linking experiences across time, and momentary self-reference centred on the present. To characterise these two aspects of awareness, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine monitoring of enduring traits (’narrative’ focus, NF) or momentary experience (’experiential’ focus, EF) in both novice participants and those having attended an 8 week course in mindfulness meditation, a program that trains individuals to develop focused attention on the present. In novices, EF yielded focal reductions in self-referential cortical midline regions (medial prefrontal cortex, mPFC) associated with NF. In trained participants, EF resulted in more marked and pervasive reductions in the mPFC, and increased engagement of a right lateralised network, comprising the lateral PFC and viscerosomatic areas such as the insula, secondary somatosensory cortex and inferior parietal lobule. Functional connectivity analyses further demonstrated a strong coupling between the right insula and the mPFC in novices that was uncoupled in the mindfulness group. These results suggest a fundamental neural dissociation between two distinct forms of self-awareness that are habitually integrated but can be dissociated through attentional training: the self across time and in the present moment.
Mindfulness involves nonjudgmental attention to present-moment experience. In its therapeutic forms, mindfulness interventions promote increased tolerance of negative affect and improved well being. However, the neural mechanisms underlying mindful mood regulation are poorly understood. Mindfulness training appears to enhance attentional monitoring systems in the brain, supported by the anterior cingulate and lateral prefrontal cortices. In emotion regulation, this prefrontal training seems to promote the stable recruitment of a non-conceptual sensory pathway, an alternative to conventional cognitive reappraisal strategies. In neural terms, the transition to non-conceptual awareness involves reducing habitual evaluative processing supported by midline structures of the prefrontal cortex. Instead, attentional resources are directed towards a limbic pathway for present-moment sensory awareness, involving the thalamus, insula, and primary sensory regions. In patients with affective disorders, mindfulness training acts as an alternative to cognitive efforts to control emotion, instead directing attention towards broadly monitoring fluctuations in momentary experience. Limiting cognitive elaboration in favor of momentary awareness appears to reduce automatic negative self-evaluation, increase tolerance for negative affect and pain, and help to engender self-compassion and empathy in chronically dysphoric individuals.