Mindfulness meditation provides personal experiences that are difficult for scientists studying its clinical advantages in the brain to interpret. Researchers are now able to combine mindfulness experience with empirical neuroscience data to generate testable hypotheses about the science – and the stated mental health benefits – of the practice.
Mindfulness meditation provides personal experiences that are difficult for scientists studying its clinical advantages in the brain to explain. Researchers from Brown University discussed how they were able to merge mindfulness experience with empirical neuroscience data to advance more rigorous research. Although mindfulness is always personal and frequently spiritual, the meditation experience does not have to be subjective. With advances in methodology, researchers are now able to combine mindfulness experiences with brain imaging and neural signal data to develop testable hypotheses about the science – and the stated mental health benefits – of the practice.
Understanding mindfulness and meditation
The research methodology, which was led by junior Juan Santoyo, used organized coding of the reports that meditators provide regarding their mental experiences. This is corroborated by quantitative neurophysiological measurements. “In the neuroscience of mindfulness and meditation, one of the problems that we’ve had is not understanding the practices from the inside out,” said co-presenter Catherine Kerr, assistant professor (research) of family medicine and director of translational neuroscience in Brown’s Contemplative Studies Initiative. “What we’ve really needed are better mechanisms for generating testable hypotheses — clinically relevant and experience-relevant hypotheses.”
Linking meditation experiences with brain activity
Carefully coded data on experience – “grounded theory methodology” – aids in the formation and testing of hypotheses, as well as the scientific exploration of mindfulness. Researchers are now developing the ability to link the experiences described by meditators to particular brain activity. “We’re going to [discuss] how this is applicable as a general tool for the development of targeted mental health treatments,” Santoyo said. “We can explore how certain experiences line up with certain patterns of brain activity. We know certain patterns of brain activity are associated with certain psychiatric disorders.” Structuring the spiritual The scientists highlighted these broad implications at the conference and asked meditators to focus on their nose or belly breathing sensations. The two meditation approaches are derived from distinct East Asian traditions. Santoyo, Kerr, and Harold Roth, professor of religious studies at Brown, collected carefully coded experience data that revealed that the two strategies produced dramatically distinct mental states in student meditators. “We found that when students focused on the breath in the belly their descriptions of experience focused on attention to specific somatic areas and body sensations,” the researchers wrote in their conference abstract. “When students described practice experiences related to a focus on the nose during meditation, they tended to describe a quality of mind, specifically how their attention ‘felt’ when they sensed it.”
Distinguishing meditation experiences
The ability to distill a rigorous distinction between the experiences resulted not only from randomly assigning meditating students to two groups – one focused on the nose and one focused on the belly – but also from the use of two independent coders who performed standardized analyses of the journal entries the students made immediately after meditating. The methodology of organized coding of self-reported personal experience is known as “grounded theory methodology.” Its application to meditation by Santoyo allows for the creation of hypotheses. For example, Kerr said, “Based on the predominantly somatic descriptions of mindfulness experience offered by the belly-focused group, we would expect there to be more ongoing, resting-state functional connectivity in this group across different parts of a large brain region called the insula that encodes visceral, somatic sensations and also provides a readout of the emotional aspects of so-called ‘gut feelings’.” Unifying experience and the brain The next stage is to compare the data from the coded experiences to data from the brain itself. In August 2013, a team of researchers led by Kathleen Garrison of Yale University, including Santoyo and Kerr, published a paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. The researchers collaborated with highly experienced meditators to link the mental processes observed during mindfulness to concurrent activity in the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). That was determined using real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging.
Level of activity connected to the Posterior cingulate cortex (PCC)
They discovered that when meditators from various traditions reported feelings of “effortless doing” and “undistracted awareness” during their meditation, their PCC was significantly less active; however, when they reported feeling distracted and having to work at mindfulness, their PCC was significantly more active. When given the opportunity to see real-time feedback on their PCC activity, some meditators were able to modulate the levels of activity. “You can observe both of these phenomena together and discover how they are co-determining one another,” Santoyo said. “Within 10 one-minute sessions, they were able to develop certain strategies to evoke a certain experience and use it to drive the signal.” Toward therapies Connecting such research to tangible medical advantages is a crucial motivator in Santoyo and Kerr’s research. Meditators have long advocated for such benefits, but backing from neurobiology and psychiatry is much more recent. Kerr and colleagues argued in February 2013 research, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience that, like how meditators might control activity in the PCC, mindfulness practitioners may have greater control over sensory cortical alpha rhythms. These brain waves aid in the regulation of how the brain processes and filters feelings such as pain, as well as memories such as depressed cognitions.
Learn how to heal the mind by observing the experience
Beginning in high school, Santoyo, whose family relocated from Colombia when he was a child, was inspired to research the possibilities of mindfulness to assist mental health. He witnessed the psychiatric challenges of the area’s homeless population while growing up in Cambridge and Somerville, Massachusetts. He also met them while working in the food service at Cambridge Hospital. “In low-income communities, you always see a lot of untreated mental health disorders,” said Santoyo, who meditates regularly and helps to lead a mindfulness group at Brown. He is pursuing a degree in neuroscience and contemplative science. “The perspective of contemplative theory is that we learn about the mind by observing experience, not just to tickle our fancy but to learn how to heal the mind.” Perhaps it is a long road, but Santoyo and his colleagues are making headway.
Materials provided by Brown University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Brown University. “Integrating meditation with science.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 April 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140402105742.htm>.
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