Cognitive Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation


February, 28 2008


Mindfulness meditation, one type of meditation technique, has been shown to
enhance emotional awareness and psychological flexibility as well as induce
well-being and emotional balance. Scientists have also begun to examine how
meditation may influence brain functions. This talk will examine the
effect of mindfulness meditation practice on the brain systems in which
psychological functions such as attention, emotional reactivity, emotion
regulation, and self-view are instantiated. We will also discuss how
different forms of meditation practices are being studied using
neuro scientific technologies and are being integrated into clinical
practice to address symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress.

Speaker: Philippe Goldin
Philippe is a research
scientist and heads the Clinically Applied Affective Neuroscience group in
the Department of Psychology at Stanford University.

He spent 6 years in India and Nepal studying various languages,
Buddhist philosophy and debate at Namgyal Monastery and the Dialectic
Monastic Institute, and serving as an interpreter for various Tibetan
Buddhist lamas. He then returned to the U.S. to complete a Ph.D. in
Clinical Psychology at Rutgers University. His NIH-funded
clinical research focuses on (a) functional neuroimaging investigations of cognitive-affective mechanisms in adults with anxiety disorders, (b)
comparing the effects of mindfulness meditation and cognitive-behavioral
therapy on brain-behavior correlates of emotional reactivity and regulation, and (c) training children in family and elementary school settings in mindfulness skills to reduce anxiety and enhance compassion, self-esteem and quality of family interactions.
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  1. What Mindfulness Research Neglects

    Mindfulness is defined as non-judgmental or choice-less awareness. Choices in turn may be divided into non-perseverative choices (what to have for breakfast, what route to take to go home, or choices with no dilemmas) and perseverative choices (worries, distractions, and rumination, or mental dilemmas wherein every alternative is bad). All meditative procedures, including mindfulness, avoid both.

    The consistent avoidance of perseverative choice alone represents resting protocols, wherein the neuro-muscular activity is sharply reduced. In other words, when we want to be relaxed we isolate ourselves from distractive and worrisome events and thoughts. These states in turn correlate with increased levels of endogenous opioids or ‘endorphins’ in the brain. The benefits of this are manifest, as the sustained increase of endogenous opioids down regulates opioid receptors, and thus inhibits the salience or reward value of other substances (food, alcohol, drugs) that otherwise increase opioid levels, and therefore reduces cravings, as well as mitigating our sensitivity to pain. Profound relaxation also inhibits muscular tension and its concomitant discomfort. In this way, relaxation causes pleasure, enhances self-control, counteracts and inhibits stress, reduces pain, and provides for a feeling of satisfaction and equanimity that is the hallmark of the so-called meditative state.

    It may be deduced therefore that meditative states are primarily resting states, and that meditative procedures over-prescribe the cognitive operations that may be altered to provide its salutary benefits (that is, you just need to avoid perseverative choices, not all choices), and that meditation as a concept must be redefined.

    Finally, the objective measurement of neuro-muscular activity and its neuro-chemical correlates (long established in the academic literature on resting states) is in general ignored by the academic literature on mindfulness, which is primarily based upon self-reports and neurological measures (fMRI) that cannot account for these facts. The problem with mindfulness research is therefore not theoretical, but empirical, and until it clearly accounts for all relevant observables for brain and body, the concept will never be fully explained.

    More of this argument, including references, below including a link to the first study (published this year) that has discovered the presence of opioid activity due to mindfulness practice, as well as the 1988 Holmes paper which provided the most extensive argument to date that meditation was rest.

  2. That introduction was truly epic in writing. This was great to watch. Love neuroscience

  3. In the latter part of the lecture, he was saying the mindfulness training decreases meta-cognition or self-assessment.  I would think that accurate meta-cognition would be a good thing which mindfulness could enhance.  Maybe I misunderstood him.

  4. Fascinating documentary that brings us up to date with brain science and Minfulness.

  5. The true revolution will begin when we invent technologies that can radically accelerate the process of developing mindfulness.  That will enable the majority of people who can't devote long hours to practice to reap benefits confined to a small number of adepts at present.  What if in fifty years we could accomplish with the press of a button what takes years of retreat to accomplish now?

  6. I'm not getting the new comments format – how do I see an original comment if I want to see what someone's replying to?

  7. at 16:39 you mention that Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) occurs early and ends up with development of depression, drug abuse etc., Is there a way to take away SAD at that tender age so that future problems don't occur?

  8. Have you ever heard of regular folks losing fat–and delighting in 3 full scrumptious meals at the same time? Just Google Skinnimaker Diet to discover more.

  9. I am currently searching for methods of help / support to extract ones self from Xanax dependency. Some of you may be aware of just how pernicious a drug Xanax ( super strength Valium – of the benzodiazapine family ) is and how difficult it is to separate from its use. This mindful meditation practice appears to be a strong possibility to assist with such a task.
    Any thoughts or comments related to on this topic ( Xanax withdrawal and use of mindful meditation ) would be greatly appreciated.

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