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This study sought to examine the effect of meditation experience on brain networks underlying cognitive actions employed during contemplative practice. In a previous study, we proposed a basic model of naturalistic cognitive fluctuations that occur during the practice of focused attention meditation. This model specifies four intervals in a cognitive cycle: mind wandering (MW), awareness of MW, shifting of attention, and sustained attention. Using subjective input from experienced practitioners during meditation, we identified activity in salience network regions during awareness of MW and executive network regions during shifting and sustained attention. Brain regions associated with the default mode were active during MW. In the present study, we reasoned that repeated activation of attentional brain networks over years of practice may induce lasting functional connectivity changes within relevant circuits. To investigate this possibility, we created seeds representing the networks that were active during the four phases of the earlier study, and examined functional connectivity during the resting state in the same participants. Connectivity maps were then contrasted between participants with high vs. low meditation experience. Participants with more meditation experience exhibited increased connectivity within attentional networks, as well as between attentional regions and medial frontal regions. These neural relationships may be involved in the development of cognitive skills, such as maintaining attention and disengaging from distraction, that are often reported with meditation practice. Furthermore, because altered connectivity of brain regions in experienced meditators was observed in a non-meditative (resting) state, this may represent a transference of cognitive abilities “off the cushion” into daily life.

This study sought to examine the effect of meditation experience on brain networks underlying cognitive actions employed during contemplative practice. In a previous study, we proposed a basic model of naturalistic cognitive fluctuations that occur during the practice of focused attention meditation. This model specifies four intervals in a cognitive cycle: mind wandering (MW), awareness of MW, shifting of attention, and sustained attention. Using subjective input from experienced practitioners during meditation, we identified activity in salience network regions during awareness of MW and executive network regions during shifting and sustained attention. Brain regions associated with the default mode were active during MW. In the present study, we reasoned that repeated activation of attentional brain networks over years of practice may induce lasting functional connectivity changes within relevant circuits. To investigate this possibility, we created seeds representing the networks that were active during the four phases of the earlier study, and examined functional connectivity during the resting state in the same participants. Connectivity maps were then contrasted between participants with high vs. low meditation experience. Participants with more meditation experience exhibited increased connectivity within attentional networks, as well as between attentional regions and medial frontal regions. These neural relationships may be involved in the development of cognitive skills, such as maintaining attention and disengaging from distraction, that are often reported with meditation practice. Furthermore, because altered connectivity of brain regions in experienced meditators was observed in a non-meditative (resting) state, this may represent a transference of cognitive abilities “off the cushion” into daily life.
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Studies have suggested that the default mode network is active during mind wandering, which is often experienced intermittently during sustained attention tasks. Conversely, an anticorrelated task-positive network is thought to subserve various forms of attentional processing. Understanding how these two systems work together is central for understanding many forms of optimal and sub-optimal task performance. Here we present a basic model of naturalistic cognitive fluctuations between mind wandering and attentional states derived from the practice of focused attention meditation. This model proposes four intervals in a cognitive cycle: mind wandering, awareness of mind wandering, shifting of attention, and sustained attention. People who train in this style of meditation cultivate their abilities to monitor cognitive processes related to attention and distraction, making them well suited to report on these mental events. Fourteen meditation practitioners performed breath-focused meditation while undergoing fMRI scanning. When participants realized their mind had wandered, they pressed a button and returned their focus to the breath. The four intervals above were then constructed around these button presses. We hypothesized that periods of mind wandering would be associated with default mode activity, whereas cognitive processes engaged during awareness of mind wandering, shifting of attention and sustained attention would engage attentional subnetworks. Analyses revealed activity in brain regions associated with the default mode during mind wandering, and in salience network regions during awareness of mind wandering. Elements of the executive network were active during shifting and sustained attention. Furthermore, activations during these cognitive phases were modulated by lifetime meditation experience. These findings support and extend theories about cognitive correlates of distributed brain networks.

Studies have suggested that the default mode network is active during mind wandering, which is often experienced intermittently during sustained attention tasks. Conversely, an anticorrelated task-positive network is thought to subserve various forms of attentional processing. Understanding how these two systems work together is central for understanding many forms of optimal and sub-optimal task performance. Here we present a basic model of naturalistic cognitive fluctuations between mind wandering and attentional states derived from the practice of focused attention meditation. This model proposes four intervals in a cognitive cycle: mind wandering, awareness of mind wandering, shifting of attention, and sustained attention. People who train in this style of meditation cultivate their abilities to monitor cognitive processes related to attention and distraction, making them well suited to report on these mental events. Fourteen meditation practitioners performed breath-focused meditation while undergoing fMRI scanning. When participants realized their mind had wandered, they pressed a button and returned their focus to the breath. The four intervals above were then constructed around these button presses. We hypothesized that periods of mind wandering would be associated with default mode activity, whereas cognitive processes engaged during awareness of mind wandering, shifting of attention and sustained attention would engage attentional subnetworks. Analyses revealed activity in brain regions associated with the default mode during mind wandering, and in salience network regions during awareness of mind wandering. Elements of the executive network were active during shifting and sustained attention. Furthermore, activations during these cognitive phases were modulated by lifetime meditation experience. These findings support and extend theories about cognitive correlates of distributed brain networks.
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