Posted 06.21.2018 | by AMRA

Mindful people have the generalized tendency to be aware of the present moment with an attitude of openness in day-to-day life. Researchers are interested in discovering whether mindful people exhibit a unique pattern of brain activity.

Lim et al. [NeuroImage] used brain imaging to explore the dynamic functional connectivity within and between brain networks of people with high versus low mindfulness levels. Functional connectivity is a measure of the degree to which different brain regions vary their activity together in synchrony. The researchers measured how the functional connections between different brain networks varied over time.

The researchers selected participants from a pool of 125 people who had previously completed a breath-counting task. For this task, participants counted their breaths from 1 to 9 repeatedly for twenty minutes while the researchers tracked how often they lost count. Participants who performed in the top third on this task were identified as highly mindful, while those in the lower third were designated as less mindful.

The high and low mindfulness participants were then invited back to the lab for functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) scans while in a resting state. Data were obtained for 21 high (average age=24 years; 38% male) and 18 low mindfulness participants (average age = 22 years; 28% male). Participants also completed the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire, or FFMQ. The researchers studied three fMRI scan variables: the total time spent in different brain states, the number of transitions between states, and the average dwell time within each state.

There are two types of brain connectivity: within- and between-network connectivity. Within-network connectivity is the degree to which the components of a network synchronize their activity, while between-network connectivity is the degree to which different networks either coordinate their activity or remain segregated from each other.

The researchers further identified two distinct brain connectivity states. One, labeled the “task ready” state, showed strong within-network correlations for the Default Mode (DMN) and Salience (SAL) networks, and a strong dissociation between the DMN and the combined (SAL) and Executive Control (ECN) networks. The other state, labeled the “idling” state, showed weaker within-network correlations and a smaller degree of dissociation between the DMN and other networks. The “task ready” state is an alert state of readiness to perform a task, while the “idling” state is a state of low attentiveness in which cognitive resources are conserved.

The results showed that the high mindfulness group spent significantly more time in the task ready state and less time in the idling state than the low mindfulness group. The high mindfulness group also significantly transitioned between states more often. The FFMQ correlated with total time in the task ready state (r=.32), but the correlation was no longer significant when corrected for multiple comparisons.

When the degree of connectivity was averaged for the within and between networks over time as a measure of static connectivity, the high mindfulness group showed stronger within-network connectivity for the DMN and SAL and a stronger degree of segregation of the DMN from the dorsal attention network.

This study shows that highly mindful people have a unique pattern of brain activity compared to those who are less mindful. Mindful people transition more frequently between brain states and spend more time in the task ready state. This suggests both greater attentiveness and preparedness to engage in tasks, and greater flexibility in shifting attentional focus.

Mindful people also show greater within-network integration and between-network segregation, which may indicate increased attentional focus and decreased mind-wandering. These results reinforce previous findings regarding the default mode, executive control, and salience networks, and their central role in the neurobiology of mindfulness.

The study is limited by the degree to which the breath-counting task can be seen as an adequate measure of mindfulness, as opposed to being a measure of just one component of mindfulness, namely concentration.

Reference:

Lim, J., Teng, J., Patanaik, A., Tandi, J., & Massar, S. A. A. (2018). Dynamic functional connectivity markers of objective trait mindfulness. NeuroImage, 176, 193-202.

[Link to abstract]