Posted 08.11.2016 | by AMRA

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Cooperating with others sometimes requires that we set irrelevant negative emotions aside in order to stay focused on achieving common goals. Can mindfulness meditation improve cooperation with others by strengthening our resistance to being distracted by negative emotions? If so, how is the brain involved in this process?

Kirk et al. [Neuroimage] studied the effects of mindfulness meditation vs. relaxation training on the decision making and brain functioning of volunteers playing a cooperative economic decision making game.

The researchers randomly assigned 51 healthy adult participants (82% Caucasian, 53% female, average age = 32) who volunteered to participate in a stress reduction program to either an 8-week mindfulness training based on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), or an 8-week stress reduction program utilizing progressive muscle relaxation, exercise, stretching, and group discussion of stress-reduction topics.

The participants played the computer-based Ultimatum Game before and after training while their brain function was monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). They also completed the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) before and after training.

The Ultimatum Game asks participants to consider offers to split $20 between themselves and another player. For example, the computer screen informs participants that someone named “Tom” is offering to split $20 with them 50/50, so that they each would receive $10. Participants then either accept or reject the offer. In reality, the offers weren’t from real people but were computer generated. The offers ranged from equal (50/50) splits to vastly unequal (19/1) splits.

While it makes economic sense to accept all offers since rejecting any offer means getting nothing, participants tend to reject offers that are inequitable and seem unfair. Past research shows that the tendency to reject unfair offers is accompanied by increased neural activity in the area of the brain known as the insula, a region that plays a role in bodily and emotional awareness and values-based decision making.

Prior to any mindfulness or relaxation training, fMRI scans showed that the more “unfair” the Ultimatum Game offer, the greater the left anterior insula activation, a finding in accordance with previous research. After training, greater insula activation was associated with rejecting unfair offers for all trainees, but there was a significant difference between the slopes of the correlations for the mindfulness (r=-.42) and relaxation trainees (r=-.52).

The difference in slopes suggests that mindfulness trainees were better at regulating their insula activity. This helped them to minimize the impact of feelings of unfairness on their decision making, permitting them to accept offers that were in their overall best economic interest despite their apparent inequity. As a consequence, mindfulness trainees significantly increased their game monetary earnings after training, while control trainees did not.

Further fMRI analyses showed that the trainees who showed the largest increases in accepting “unfair” offers also showed the greatest increases in left septal region activation (r=.61). Previous research shows that the septal region facilitates cooperative social behavior. The mindfulness trainees’ insula and septal regions worked in tandem while they considered “unfair” offers. There was no similar insula-septal region coordination in the relaxation trainees.

While FFMQ total mindfulness scores rose significantly after training in both the mindfulness and relaxation conditions, mindfulness training raised FFMQ scores significantly more than relaxation training. The more mindfulness meditation that trainees practiced at home, the higher their FFMQ scores (r=.45). After training, mindfulness trainees were significantly more likely to accept “unfair” offers than were relaxation trainees. The higher the mindfulness trainees’ post-training FFMQ scores, the greater the increase in their willingness to accept “unfair” offers (r=.50). There was no similar relationship between the FFMQ and acceptance rates for relaxation trainees.

Findings from this study reveal increases in mindfulness, changes in insula and septal activation and connectivity, and changes in economic decision making as a consequence of mindfulness training. The researchers infer that mindfulness increases social cooperation by improving the regulation of negative emotions. The strength of that inference is weakened by the fact that the “social” nature of the Ultimatum Game involved virtual rather than actual human interaction.

Reference:

Kirk, U., Gu, X., Sharp, C., Hula, A., Fonagy, P., & Montague, P. R. (2016). Mindfulness training increases cooperative decision making in economic exchanges: Evidence from fMRI. NeuroImage, 138, 274-83.

[Link to abstract]