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Meditation generates compassion for other’s embarrassment

Posted 06.15.2017 | by AMRA

The social pain associated with rejection or embarrassment activates some of the same brain structures that are activated during the experience of physical pain. These brain structures are also activated when we witness someone else’s embarrassment. Feeling distressed over someone else’s embarrassment can cause us to focus on reducing our own distress rather than on responding compassionately to the other person. In this way, excessive empathic distress paradoxically decreases our ability to relate compassionately.

Can mindfulness reduce the magnitude of empathic distress caused by another’s social pain, thereby facilitating increased compassion? Laneri et al. [Human Brain Mapping] explored how both mindfulness meditation and long-term meditation practice affect the brain mechanisms associated with empathic distress in long-term meditators and matched controls.

The researchers recruited 32 long-term meditators (average age = 51 years, 63% male, average length of meditation practice = 17 years, meditation practice = Zen, Vipassana, or Mindfulness Meditation) and 19 matched meditation-naïve control participants. All of the participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while engaging in a task designed to elicit empathic distress at someone else’s embarrassment.

Half of the long-term meditators were randomly assigned to engage in mindfulness meditation for eight minutes immediately before participating in the fMRI-monitored task, while the other half were instructed to merely rest prior to the task. The meditation-naïve controls also merely rested prior to the task.

The empathy-for-embarrassment task involved viewing a set of embarrassing and neutral social situations presented on a computer screen in the form of drawings accompanied by brief descriptions. As an example, one of the embarrassing situations included the description, “You are at a post-office: you observe a women’s trouser ripping while she […]

June 15th, 2017|News|

Brain regions connect after mindfulness training

Posted 04.25.2017 | by AMRA

Mindfulness training has been shown to improve performance on behavioral measures of executive control including attention, working memory, emotional and cognitive control, and decision making. Research also suggests that a brain region known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) plays an important role in executive control, serving as the hub of an executive control brain network. The dlPFC has rich anatomical connections to other brain regions that are also thought to be involved in executive control. Does mindfulness training assist executive control by improving the way the dlPFC interrelates with these other brain regions?

One way to test this is by assessing resting state functional connectivity between the dlPFC and other brain regions. Resting state functional connectivity is a measure of how much different brain regions work in tandem. For example, when one region increases activity, other brain regions act in sync with it.

Taren et al. [Psychosomatic Medicine] tested whether mindfulness training increases the functional connectivity between the dlPFC and other executive control brain regions by comparing functional connectivity after either mindfulness training or relaxation training in a randomized, controlled study.

The researchers randomly assigned 35 unemployed, job-seeking adults (average age = 40; 57% male; 66% Caucasian) who reported high levels of stress to either an intensive 3-day residential mindfulness training, or an intensive 3-day residential relaxation training. Mindfulness training was a condensed version of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction that included body scanning, sitting, walking, and eating meditations, and mindful yoga. Relaxation training included resting while walking and stretching and didactic presentations, but did not include progressive muscle relaxation.

All participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) both at baseline and two weeks after training. The […]

April 25th, 2017|News|

Mindfulness training reduces smoking, brain mechanism uncovered

Posted 11.14.2016 | by AMRA


Life expectancy of tobacco smokers is cut by 10 years, and smoking is responsible for nearly a half-million deaths in the United States each year. The vast majority of smokers want to quit, but unassisted attempts usually fail, and those that succeed often end in relapse. Studies show that acute stress increases both the likelihood of smoking and the risk of relapse. That is the reason why stress reduction techniques are often offered as a key component in smoking cessation programs.

Kober et al. [Neuroimage] investigated differences in the brain’s response to stress in cigarette smokers participating in one of two smoking cessation interventions: mindfulness training for smoking (MT) or the American Lung Association’s Freedom from Smoking (FFS) program.

The study reported on 23 adult smokers (average age = 48, 70% male, 58% Caucasian) who volunteered for a smoking cessation intervention. The participants were randomly assigned to either MT or FFS, and the relative success of these interventions was reported on in a separate publication (both interventions were effective, with MT participants demonstrating a greater improvement in smoking reduction). Both group interventions met twice a week over a four-week period. The MT program emphasized present-moment awareness and acceptance as strategies for coping with negative emotions and cravings and utilized mindfulness and loving-kindness meditations. The FFS program emphasized self-monitoring, identifying triggers, developing individualized quitting plans, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and cognitive-behavioral coping strategies.

The participants underwent functional magnetic resonance brain imaging (fMRI) immediately after smoking cessation treatment. The participants listened to recordings of individualized stressful and neutral scenarios during their brain scans. The individualized scenarios were developed based on actual stressful life events the participants had […]

November 14th, 2016|News|

Mindfulness and social cooperation in economic decision making

Posted 08.11.2016 | by AMRA


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 […]

August 11th, 2016|News|

Emotional reactivity lessens with mindfulness, brain study shows

Posted 06.17.2016 | by AMRA


One advantage of being mindful is that it allows one to respond to situations with equanimity rather than reacting emotionally in a “knee-jerk” fashion. How does mindfulness help us to do this? According to one theory, mindfulness helps to extinguish our negative emotional reactions. It does this by increasing our exposure to the stimuli that provoke these reactions while helping us to maintain an open, nonjudgmental stance.

Uusberg et al. [Biological Psychology] tested this theory using an electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure the effects of repeatedly viewing negative and neutral images under both mindful and control conditions. They hypothesized that repeated viewing of emotionally-charged images while maintaining mindful awareness would cause a greater reduction in emotional reactions to the images than viewing them without mindfulness.

The researchers recruited 37 meditation-naive volunteers (84% female, average age=27). The participants were shown a series of 30 neutral and 30 negative images while an EEG recorded their late positive potentials (LPPs) in response to those images. LPPs are electrical brain waves that occur 260-1500 milliseconds after viewing a stimulus. They reflect ongoing emotional processing, with larger LPPs reflecting greater degrees of emotional processing. The mean difference in LPP amplitude between negative and neutral images served as a measure of emotional reactivity.

The negative stimuli featured images such as car accidents and brutal attacks, while the neutral stimuli were images of everyday scenes and objects such as hairdryers. Participants viewed subsets of these neutral and negative images under three different conditions: an “attentiveness” condition in which they focused on the visual details of the images; an open-monitoring “mindfulness” condition in which they viewed the images while also attending nonjudgmentally to thoughts, […]

June 17th, 2016|News|

Older adult cognitive decline improves after mindfulness program

Posted 05.19.2016 | by AMRA


Older adults who complain of subjective cognitive decline (SCD) often appear normal in day-to-day functioning and on clinical assessment, but 60% of them eventually develop either mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s Disease. This makes older adults with SCD a prime target for interventions aimed at preventing or slowing cognitive decline.

Smart et al. [Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease] conducted a randomized controlled pilot study to test the effects of mindfulness training versus a psycho-educational control on measures of attention, brain structure and function, and self-reported cognitive complaints, mood, and mindfulness in adults with SCD.

A sample of 23 healthy older adults and 15 older adults with SCD (predominantly Caucasian men and women, average age = 70) were randomly assigned to either an 8-week mindfulness training based on MBSR that was tailored for older adults, or a 5-week program that provided education on memory and aging, situational factors that affect memory, and strategies to compensate for memory difficulties. Participants completed self-report measures of memory complaints, depression, and mindfulness (the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire, or FFMQ).

They also completed an attentional capacity task that required them to be vigilant and respond or withhold responding to letters presented on a computer screen. An electroencephalogram (EEG) recorded the magnitude of their brain’s P3 evoked response potentials (ERPs) while performing this task. Higher P3 ERPs reflect increased attentional capacity and are known to decrease in amplitude with SCD. All these measures were obtained both before and after intervention. Structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was also included to detect changes in total brain volume from pre- to post- intervention.

Adults with SCD reported a greater number of subjective memory complaints and had a […]

May 19th, 2016|News|

Meditation aids attention of older adults, brain regions identified

Posted 02.24.2016 | by AMRA


As we mature into old age, our ability to remain focused and quickly choose the correct response from a set of competing responses tends to diminish. Can mindfulness training help us retain our attention, executive control and emotional regulation as we age? Malinowski, et al [Mindfulness] randomly assigned mature adults to either mindfulness training or an active comparison group, and assessed the changes in their ability to perform a task that demanded focused attention, executive control, and emotional regulation while their brain activity was measured.

The researchers assigned a predominantly female cohort of 56 British older adults (average age = 64) to either mindfulness training or a “brain training” comparison condition. Mindfulness training entailed four 90-minute group-training sessions in breath-focused concentration meditation with instructions for maintaining a non-judgmental, non-elaborative attitude. Mindfulness trainees practiced meditation at home at least 10 minutes a day, five days a week, over 8 weeks.

The comparison condition met as a group for an equivalent amount of time. Both groups entailed psychoeducation, group discussion, and skills practice, but the “brain training” group practiced mental arithmetic instead of meditation, both in the groups and at home.

All participants completed the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) and a Stroop task, before and after training. The Stroop task required participants to count the number of words they saw that were presented on a computer screen. Sometimes the words’ meanings interfered with their counting (e.g., when the word “two” appeared three times) or had emotional connotations that could slow their processing speed. Participants needed to ignore the meanings and stay focused on the task.

Electroencephalography (EEG) concurrently measured the participants’ evoked response potentials (ERPs), which are […]

February 24th, 2016|News|

Wearable brain feedback technology to support mindfulness practice

Posted 10.30.2015 | by AMRA


The basic mindfulness instruction to “attend to the present moment without judgment” seems straightforward, but novices are often unsure whether they are practicing mindfulness “correctly.” There are no existing objective behavioral markers of mindfulness, and descriptions of what mindfulness “feels like” are often metaphorical (e.g., “spacious” or “intimate”) and hard to interpret.

This lends a hit-or-miss quality to training, and has led some to wonder whether neurofeedback (a form of biofeedback that uses electro-encephalogram (EEG) data to alter brain rhythms) might be a useful way to support mindfulness practice. Previous research has identified a group of EEG parameters (e.g., the appearance of alpha frequencies, increasing alpha amplitude, and a gradual shift towards lower alpha and theta frequencies) that accompany the meditative state. Neuro-feedback devices that help meditators achieve these EEG patterns may help assist in cultivating mindfulness.

Sas & Chopra [Personal and Ubiquitous Computing] developed a wearable mindfulness neurofeedback device (MeditAid) and tested it with novice and experienced meditators. The MeditAid prototype includes a wearable, wireless headset to record scalp EEGs and software to translate EEG patterns into auditory feedback. The auditory feedback is delivered as either monaural beats (sounds of differing frequencies presented to both ears simultaneously) or binaural beats (sounds of differing frequencies presented to each ear separately) through headphones. Each method produces a rhythmic pattern of beats that corresponds to the user’s EEG frequency.

The difference between monaural and binaural beats is that monaural beat perception is a function of the mechanics of the inner ear, whereas binaural beat perception is a function of the integrative activity of the brain. Listeners hear lower monaural and binaural beat frequencies as having a […]

October 30th, 2015|News|

Brain imaging study of adolescents links cortical changes and mindfulness

Posted 08.25.2015 | by AMRA


Adolescence is a time of rapid growth in young people’s capacity to self-regulate their emotions and maintain focus on goals, as well as a time of rapid brain development. In a longitudinal study, Friedel et al. [Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience] explored the relationship between changes in brain areas previously linked to mindfulness and the development of a tendency to be mindful of experience (dispositional mindfulness) in adolescents.

The brain regions of interest included the prefrontal cortex (an area involved in goal directed behavior and emotional regulation) and the insula (an area involved in the awareness of internal bodily states). As adolescents mature, the gray matter in their cerebral cortexes tends to thin out as neurons are selectively pruned and circuits become more efficient. The researchers predicted that a higher degree of cortical thinning would correlate with higher levels of dispositional mindfulness.

The researchers analyzed the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of 82 male and female adolescents who, as part of a larger study, underwent repeated scans at ages 16 and 19, and completed the Mindfulness Attention and Awareness Scale (MAAS) at age 19. The participants were also assessed on measures of temperament, emotional regulation, and intelligence.

Dispositional mindfulness was positively correlated with self-report measures of cognitive reappraisal, attention, and inhibitory control, and negatively correlated with measures of frustration, aggression, and depressed mood. The researchers analyzed possible relationships between cortical thinning and dispositional mindfulness in twenty different regions of the prefrontal and insular cortex. Contrary to expectation, prefrontal cortical thinning was unrelated to dispositional mindfulness — although prefrontal thinning was related to IQ.

There was, however, a significant correlation between a lesser degree of left anterior insular […]

August 25th, 2015|News|

Does mindfulness reduce stress by altering brain function?

Posted 07.21.2015 | by AMRA


Does mindfulness reduce stress by altering brain function? The amygdala—a small, almond-shaped structure located in the brain’s limbic system—is known to play a key role in the stress response. Previous research has shown that increased connectivity (a measure of the degree to which brain structures inter-coordinate) between the amygdala and other limbic and cortical structures is associated with greater stress levels.

In two separate studies, Taren et al. [Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience] investigated how the amygdala’s resting connectivity with nearby brain structures correlates with stress, and whether that connectivity changed in response to a mindfulness-based intervention (MBI). In doing so, the researchers aimed to identify one of the main brain pathways underlying the effect of mindfulness practice on stress levels. In an initial study, 130 healthy men and women self-reported perceived stress levels and participated in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess the resting functional connectivity between the amygdala and nearby brain structures.

In a second randomized, single-blind study using an active control group, 35 unemployed adults with moderate-to-high levels of perceived stress were assigned to either a three-day intensive residential mindfulness retreat modeled after MBSR which included the body scan, sitting and walking meditation, and mindful eating and yoga, or a three day intensive relaxation retreat which included walking, stretching, and didactics emphasizing relaxation rather than mindfulness.

Amygdala connectivity was assessed by fMRI before and after each intervention. Four months later, hair samples were taken and assayed for stress hormone (cortisone and cortisol) levels over the post-intervention period. This study demonstrated that participants with higher levels of perceived stress had significantly greater degrees of connectivity between the right side of the […]

July 21st, 2015|News|