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Posts Tagged ‘attention’

15 March 2012 Effects of meditation experience on functional connectivity of distributed brain networks | Frontiers in Human Neuroscience

Marsha Lucas, PhD
March 14, 2012
Rewire your Brain for Love

I do love open access articles on neuroscience and meditation – and I’m even happier to share them here. Here’s one from Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (from Emory University researchers – my grad school alma mater. Yay, Dr. Barsalou!)

Effects of meditation experience on functional connectivity of distributed brain networks

By  Wendy Hasenkamp and Lawrence W. Barsalou    

Neurons in action

This study sought to examine the effect of meditation experience on brain networks under- lying 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 func- tional 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.

To Read More Download the Article in PDF form HERE

15 March 2012 Meditation strengthens the brain, UCLA researchers say

UCLA Newsroom
Earlier evidence out of UCLA suggested that meditating for years thickens the brain (in a good way) and strengthens the connections between brain cells. Now a further report by UCLA researchers suggests yet another benefit.
Eileen Luders, an assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, and colleagues, have found that long-term meditators have larger amounts of gyrification (“folding” of the cortex, which may allow the brain to process information faster) than people who do not meditate. Further, a direct correlation was found between the amount of gyrification and the number of meditation years, possibly providing further proof of the brain’s neuroplasticity, or ability to adapt to environmental changes.
The article appears in the online edition of the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
The cerebral cortex is the outermost layer of neural tissue. Among other functions, it plays a key role in memory, attention, thought and consciousness. Gyrification or cortical folding is the process by which the surface of the brain undergoes changes to create narrow furrows and folds called sulci and gyri. Their formation may promote and enhance neural processing. Presumably then, the more folding that occurs, the better the brain is at processing information, making decisions, forming memories and so forth.
“Rather than just comparing meditators and non-meditators, we wanted to see if there is a link between the amount of meditation practice and the extent of brain alteration,” said Luders. “That is, correlating the number of years of meditation with the degree of folding.”
Of the 49 recruited subjects, the researchers took MRI scans of 23 meditators and compared them to 16 control subjects  matched for age, handedness and sex. (Ten participants dropped out.) The scans for the controls were obtained from an existing MRI database, while the meditators were recruited from various meditation venues. The meditators had practiced their craft on average for 20 years using a variety of meditation types — Samatha, Vipassana, Zen and more. The researchers applied a well-established and automated whole-brain approach to measure cortical gyrification at thousands of points across the surface of the brain.
They found pronounced group differences (heightened levels of gyrification in active meditation practitioners) across a wide swatch of the cortex, including the left precentral gyrus, the left and right anterior dorsal insula, the right fusiform gyrus and the right cuneus.
Perhaps most interesting, though, was the positive correlation between the number of meditation years and the amount of insular gyrification.
“The insula has been suggested to function as a hub for autonomic, affective and cognitive integration,” said Luders. “Meditators are known to be masters in introspection and awareness as well as emotional control and self-regulation, so the findings make sense that the longer someone has meditated, the higher the degree of folding in the insula.”
While Luders cautions that genetic and other environmental factors could have contributed to the effects the researchers observed, still, “The positive correlation between gyrification and the number of practice years supports the idea that meditation enhances regional gyrification.”
Other authors of the study included Florian Kurth, Emeran A. Mayer, Arthur W.Toga, and Katherine L. Narr, all of UCLA, and Christian Gaser, University of Jena, Germany. Funding was provided by several organizations, including the National Institutes of Health. The authors report no conflict of interest.
The Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, which seeks to improve understanding of the brain in health and disease, is a leader in the development of advanced computational algorithms and scientific approaches for the comprehensive and quantitative mapping of brain structure and function. It is part of the UCLA Department of Neurology, which encompasses more than a dozen research, clinical and teaching programs. The department ranks in the top two among its peers nationwide in National Institutes of Health funding. For more information, see link.

8 March 2012 Meditation May Be the Key to Business Leadership

Nikita Singhal and Suken Vakil
March 5, 2012
The Independent Newspaper of Harvard Business School Community


Meditation @ HBS, Photo by Reena Gautam

What do Steve Jobs, Ray Dalio, Bill George, Marc Beinoff and Phil Jackson have in common? They are visionaries, have been known to lead and inspire teams, and have achieved significant success in their professional lives. They have one more thing in common – meditation. Could their focus on contemplative practices have something to do with their huge successes?

Suken Vakil & I (Nikita Singhal), both OG, are looking to answer that exact question, and we’ve designed an independent study under the guidance of Prof. Sandra Sucher, titled Meditation & Business Leadership.

How did we get interested? This past summer, I was fortunate to take a meditation workshop with the Art of Living Foundation in New York City. I have been meditating every day since, and have found that 25mins of meditation makes me think more proactively about my priorities, focus better, see issues from a new vantage point i.e. more objectively, and not get stressed about inconsequential events. Suken learned about contemplative practices through traveling in India with family.

We began to share our thoughts with friends and faculty on campus, and were surprised by the openness and interest amongst all. There seems to be an increasing awareness for contemplative studies at Harvard.

A study led by psychologist Sara Lazar at Harvard Medical School, was the first to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s gray matter, in areas associated with attention and emotional integration[1].

At Harvard Law School, The Harvard Negotiation Insight Initiative, founded by Erica Fox, teaches mindfulness practices as essential to the art of conflict resolution. Meditation, Fox asserts, is central to achieving the Initiative’s mission, “…but is also enabling negotiators to be more successful in getting to yes.” [2]

HBS Professor Sandra Sucher is part of a cross-university study that looks at contemplative dimensions of leadership and leadership education, and they have invited guests such as Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn, author of several scientific papers on mindfulness and co-author of The Mind’s Own Physician.

In A Powerful Silence, author Maia Duerr suggests that we are “in the midst of a massive demystification and democratization of contemplative practices”. At least 135 companies offer employees some form of meditation and/or yoga and the number of hospitals/clinics that provided mindfulness based stress reduction training for patients increased from 80 in 1993 to 250 in 2003.

So what does this mean for HBS? Suken and I aim to look into whether meditation can help business leaders increase self-awareness, mental clarity, focus and emotional intelligence. It is often also claimed that meditation helps a leader develop more authenticity, tolerance and empathy, which leads to a greater sense of belongingness and responsibility for the communities they live and work in.

We hope to gain some insights via a review of academic and popular literature, interviews with business leaders who practice meditation, and by meditating ourselves over the course of the semester to examine any impact.

20 February 2012 Meditation helps kids pay attention, leading researcher says

By Gordon Hoekstra
February 16, 2012
 The Province
”]Simple meditation techniques, backed up with modern scientific knowledge of the brain, are helping kids hard-wire themselves to be able to better pay attention and become kinder, says neuroscientist Richard Davidson.Davidson — who will speak Friday at the University of British Columbia on his new co-authored book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain— has put his research into practice at elementary schools in Madison, Wis.About 200 students at four elementary schools have used breathing techniques to hard-wire their brains to improve their ability to focus on their work.

“It’s so widely popular and successful, the district wants us to scale it up the entire (Madison) school system,” Davidson said Wednesday in an interview.

Davidson, who was inspired by a meeting with the Dalai Lama in 1992 to research areas like kindness and compassion, heads up several laboratories at the University of Wisconsin including the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.

In 2006, Davidson was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people.

Davidson said research has shown why the brain’s circuitry is important in governing a person’s resilience to stress.

Research has also shown the brain is elastic, that it can be shaped by experience and behaviour.

Research, including brain imaging studies, also shows it is possible to cultivate the mind to change brain function and structure in ways that will promote higher levels of well-being and increased resilience, said Davidson. His research is outlined in dozens of articles in scientific journals.

The techniques used with elementary schoolchildren are quite simple. To improve a child’s ability to pay attention — and also improve their studying abilities — a stone is put on a child’s belly, and they learn to focus on their breathing as the stone goes up and down.

The technique can be taught to children as young as four, said Davidson.

“A simple anchor like one’s breath is a centuries-old meditation technique, but it turns out to have some very beneficial qualities in terms of changes in both the brain and behaviour,” he said.

To foster kindness in teenagers, students are asked to visualize a loved one suffering followed by a thought that they be relieved of that suffering.

This is extended to difficult people as well, said Davidson.

This exercise has also been shown to produce meaningful changes in the brain and behaviour, he said.

Elementary schools in Vancouver have also embraced these meditation techniques as part of a program called MindUp that teaches children that it is hard to concentrate when the brain is stressed.

More than 1,000 teachers have trained in the program at the Vancouver school board, and the district has received requests from other school districts, including in Yukon, to teach the program.

21 November 2011 Tuning out: How brains benefit from meditation

Nov 21, 2011

Experienced meditators seem to be able switch off areas of the brain associated with daydreaming as well as psychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia, according to a new brain imaging study by Yale researchers.

Meditation’s ability to help people stay focused on the moment has been associated with increased happiness levels, said Judson A. Brewer, assistant professor of psychiatry and lead author of the study published the week of Nov. 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He said that understanding how meditation works will aid investigation into a host of diseases. He added:

Meditation has been shown to help in variety of health problems, such as helping people quit smoking, cope with cancer, and even prevent psoriasis.

The Yale team conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging scans on both experienced and novice meditators as they practiced three different meditation techniques.

They found that experienced meditators had decreased activity in areas of the brain called the default mode network, which has been implicated in lapses of attention and disorders such as anxiety, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, and even the buildup of beta amyloid plaques in Alzheimer’s disease. The decrease in activity in this network, consisting of the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortex, was seen in experienced meditators regardless of the type of meditation they were doing.

The scans also showed that when the default mode network was active, brain regions associated with self-monitoring and cognitive control were co-activated in experienced meditators but not novices. This might indicate that meditators are constantly monitoring and suppressing the emergence of “me” thoughts, or mind-wandering. In pathological forms, these states are associated with diseases such as autism and schizophrenia.

The meditators did this both during meditation, and also when just resting — not being told to do anything in particular. This may indicate that meditators have developed a “new” default mode in which there is more present-centered awareness, and less “self”-centered, say the researchers. Brewer said:

Meditation’s ability to help people stay in the moment has been part of philosophical and contemplative practices for thousands of years. Conversely, the hallmarks of many forms of mental illness is a preoccupation with one’s own thoughts, a condition meditation seems to affect. This gives us some nice cues as to the neural mechanisms of how it might be working clinically.

9 December 2010 Meditation Increases Attention and Changes the Brain

Posted by Martin Bohn, on Nov 30, 2010 in suite101.com
A 2007 study by neuroscientist Richard Davidson suggests that meditation improves attention and may even help with attention deficit disorder.
Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has conducted several studies on the effects of meditation on the brain. Being a regular meditator himself, Davidson is also a long time friend of the Dalai Lama. In this study, he was allowed to examine the brains of several Tibetan monks with a very long meditation practice and compare it to people without previous meditation experience.

The Study

In collaboration with colleagues Brefczynski-Lewis and Lutz, Davidson conducted a study that compared meditation novices to long time meditators. Both groups were asked to meditate while undergoing a magnetic resonance imaging scan (MRI) of the brain. The meditation used was a practice where one focuses intently on a stimulus and then repeatedly goes back to the object of meditation whenever the mind has wandered.

Meditation as Seen on the MRI Scan

The MRI scans revealed an increased activity in the brain regions used for paying attention and making decisions. Thus, meditation seems to train the corresponding regions and functions of the brain. It was also found that the areas of the brain connected with attention and decision-making (such as the prefrontal cortex) were more activated in long-term meditators than in the meditation novices.

Most fascinatingly, however, an altogether different picture emerged when looking only at the most experienced meditators with at least 40,000 hours of experience (equivalent to meditating five hours per day for 22 years). In that group, the same areas of the brain only showed an increased activity at the beginning of the meditation. After that, the brain activity went back to baseline. The conclusion drawn by Davidson is that these persons were able to concentrate effortlessly, something that has often been described in classic texts on mediation.

Immune to Distraction

Another distinct feature of the study was examining the reaction to distractive noises. While meditating inside the MRI, the subjects of the study were periodically blasted with disturbing noises. Among the group of experienced meditators, these noises had much less effect on the brain areas involved in emotion and decision-making. And the most experienced meditators, with over 40,000 hours of meditation experience, were hardly affected at all. “They do hear the sound” Davidson pointed out, “we can detect that in the auditory cortex, but they don’t have the emotional reaction.”

Meditation or Lifestyle?

Although he doesn’t completely rule out that these results may have something to do with the differences of lifestyle between the Buddhist monks and the ordinary American people observed in the study, Davidson doesn’t think so. Pointing out the correlation between the length of meditation practice and the amount of changes in the brain, Davidson assumes that the changes were indeed caused by meditation (rather than lifestyle factors such as isolation, eating habits or religious faith).

The Brain Can Be Changed

Another evidence for the neurological benefits of meditation comes from another study by Davidson. It shows that the ability to detect a brief visual signal that most people cannot detect is significantly improved in people who were trained in meditation over the course of three months. This study can be regarded as further evidence of the so called neuroplasticity of the brain – the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life.

While psychologists have long tended to consider an adult’s capacity to pay attention as relatively fixed, these findings suggest that attention can be trained in a similar way as other abilities. Just as regular workouts improve cardiovascular health, so the systematic practice of meditation can train and improve attention.

Meditation and Hyperactivity

With a view towards a growing prevalence in hyperactivity disorder among children, Davidson regards meditation or methods derived from meditation as possible tools for dealing with hyperactivity. He stresses, however, that it is not more than a possibility as yet.


Brain scans show meditation changes minds, increases attention.” Online article on the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s website.

Related Articles and Links

You might also be interested in the following articles on how meditation increases the size of the brain and on how meditation changes the brain. Furthermore, you can read about a related neuroscientific study by Antoine Lutz, called “Can meditation sharpen our attention?” (University of Wisconsin and Madison’s website).

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