Thursday, July 10, 2008

Cognitive Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation

From Google Tech Talks

ABSTRACT: 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 neuroscientific 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.


Dr. Mezmer said...

Permit this one comment on mindfulness practice. The primary emphasis in mindfulness is on the reduction of rumination, but non-conscious distractive events are also implicitly reduced in mindfulness but have never been separately controlled in the literature of meditation. If they were, it would engender a new procedure that would could produce many of the benefits of mindfulness without the control of rumination.

The following argument and procedure is derived from an article in the International Journal of Stress Management in 2006.

The Cinderella Effect

In our workaday lives, to literally get to where we consciously or non consciously want to go, the striated musculature is employed. Yet, the striated musculature is divided into two main types that are different physiologically and are activated separately and not necessarily simultaneously. The question is whether they are different psychologically. Type 2 or fast twitch muscular fibers are phasically activated when we physically manipulate our world and as operant behavior are modulated by their consequences. However, another class of muscular fiber, or type 1, slow twitch, or ‘Cinderella’ fibers are tonically activated during conditions of choice, and this sustained activation often causes pain and exhaustion. Type 2 fibers are commonly thought to embody voluntary, operant or R-S mechanisms, whereas the activation of type 1 fibers is commonly attributed to be directly or indirectly elicited by involuntary, reflexive or S-R mechanisms as a component of a ‘flight or fight’ response. But is this indeed the case?

The problem for an analysis of the activity of type 1 musculature as a learned or operant behavior is that tension is a core component of emotional responses such as anxiety, fear or anger that are difficult to precisely define, and it is hard to tease apart the S-R from the R-S components that are purported to control the neuro-muscular aspect of emotionality. Perhaps the easiest way to analyze the discriminative stimuli that activate Type 1 musculature from the perspective of learning theory is to examine this behavior under conditions that minimize the presence of real or imputed reflexive S-R mechanisms. This is the case when we become tense as we make day to day choices between alternative contingencies wherein the choice of one marks a small opportunity loss of the other, or ‘distractive’ choices. Because the initiating cause for this tension is a simple discrimination between two alternative contingencies or choices, and not complex linguistic (rumination) information or the sudden perception of threatening physical stimuli (e.g. an oncoming train or a spider underfoot), tension may be examined as a function of simple cognitive and not reflexive mechanisms. This also implies that tension can be easily manipulated through the regulation of elemental aspects of decision making rather than the complex manipulation of rumination or the avoidance of Pavlovian like stimuli or stressors. In other words, tension is an attribute of an simple and easily managed information rather than an artifact of or complex cognitive or ruminative processes or a reflexive ‘flight or fight’ response.

Most importantly, this simple hypothesis imputes an equally simple procedure that may be easily tested, hence a method that I call Cinderella.


Rest in Peace (and Quiet)

In the literature of stress, stress is commonly attributed to a monolithic ‘flight or fight’ reaction that accounts for all attributes of the stress response, from fear and anxiety to the tension that is elicited in a distractive day. Yet for minor or small scale choices or distractions, this ‘stress’ response begins with merely the slight yet sustained activation of low threshold or Type 1 muscular fibers. These muscles are activated easily and rapidly, deactivate slowly, and when sustained quickly fail and cause pain and exhaustion. (This is why at the end of a distraction filled working day we commonly report not fear or anxiety, but merely a state of exhaustion) This activation pattern does not entail fear or anger and is generally not reported as anxiety. Because of the neuro-muscular characteristics of this type of muscular activity, reducing the salience or frequency of distractive events is not enough to disengage this sustained or tonic tension. Distractions instead must be totally eliminated for a sustained period of time, and this is what is implicitly done in meditative practices. The question, yet unanswered, is what is the relative role of rumination and distraction in the maintenance of these low level stressors.

The Cinderella Effect
A common truism is that distractions not only cause us to get tense and remain tense during the day, but that tension ‘builds’ until we are sore and exhausted. However, the neuro-muscular processes behind this event are not widely known. Named after the fairy tale character who was first to awake and last to sleep, this ‘Cinderella Effect’ represents the fact that slight but continuous distractions (e.g. the continuous choice opportunities of surfing the internet or accessing email instead of working) elicit the continuous activation of low threshold units (also called Type 1, slow twitch, or Cinderella fibers) of the striated musculature, which unabated will lead to their failure and the successive recruitment of other muscular groups to take up the slack. The result is pain, exhaustion, and often a literal pain in the neck. (To elicit a similar result, try lightly clenching your fist for a minute or so.) In addition, as the name Cinderella underscores, this muscular activity does not immediately cease when distractions cease, and is sustained even when we take a break or rest.

Thus, even slight or intermittent distractions will elicit sustained or ‘tonic’ muscular tension, and usually to harmful and painful effect. It follows logically that only a radical and sustained reduction in distraction can result in a totally relaxed state. Thus, to be relaxed, a reduction in distractive choices is not enough, distraction must instead be totally eliminated or deferred, and that is what meditative practices implicitly do but ironically never explicitly concede. The problem is that meditation also entails a radical reduction in rumination as well as distraction, and the emphasis in meditative disciplines on the control of rumination obscures the distinctive influence of distraction in maintaining tense or anxious states. (Indeed, the respective roles of rumination and distraction have never been separately studied in the scientific literature on meditation.) However, if distraction and only distraction can be monitored and avoided in the many environments that are stressful primarily because of distraction, then one can achieve the means to be relaxed, even if the level of rumination is not altered. Thus one can learn to become relaxed even in workaday environments.

The Cinderella Method

The procedure:

First: Take a mental or physical inventory of all the minor unessential judgments in a working day that would entail minor avoidable gain/loss. These 'distractions' included doing one's work vs. reading the newspaper, watching TV, chatting on the phone, internet surfing, or other diversions. This provides a comparative or base rate to which to compare future behavior, and trains you to notice or attend to distractive choices.

Secondly: Set aside fixed times during the day (e.g. 8-9 am, 1-2pm) when you will completely avoid these choices. Then simply perform your rationally considered behavior (i.e., your work), or if not, just sit.

That's it.

By continuously eliminating these distractive choices from major portions of the day, you can still anticipate and be aware of them, but you cannot be stressed by choosing between them. By deferring irreconcilable choices, tension falls, relaxation occurs, and you can go about your day more relaxed, more alert, more productive, and without the painful regret that occurs from a day misspent. Finally, by providing a feedback function to train attention and to compare behavior across days, you can compare corresponding emotional behavior (i.e., tension) across behavior or 'trials', demonstrate the efficacy of the procedure, and be reinforced for the overall effort by that feedback.

What the Cinderella Method Does

The Cinderella Method is essentially a method of exercising a control over tension in its often initial form as a subliminal behavior that escapes conscious awareness. This method allows one to sustain a natural or homeostatic resting state that otherwise is disrupted in even a slightly distractive environment. Since for small distractions the proprioceptive stimuli which alert one to tension only indicate the presence of tension after tension has been sustained for some time, the isolation and control of the discriminative stimuli that are correlated with the initiation of slight or minor tension allow for tension to be avoided before its sustained occurrence taxes the musculature and autonomic nervous system. Conversely, the method also trains one to mentally recreate or ‘learn’ the proprioceptive stimuli associated with relaxation, and thus be able to ‘voluntarily’ induce relaxation. Since relaxation as a voluntary response (actually, what is learned is the inhibition of tension, since relaxation is not a response but is technically the non-activity of the musculature) is incompatible with tension, it will also mitigate tension caused by distraction and rumination even when both are not avoided.

Finally, the Cinderella Method sharply contrasts with prevalent stress control procedures, which emphasize the modification and control through psychotherapy and other means large scale or molar distractions or problems, such as domestic or other workaday difficulties and the rumination they entail. The Cinderella method is based on the premise that stress is predominantly caused by small scale or molecular problems or distractions that in contrast to rumination are far more frequent yet are more easily controlled. Because control is easy, time consuming therapeutic intervention is not required.

Marr, A. J. (2006) Relaxation and Muscular Tension: A Bio-behavioristic Explanation, International Journal of Stress Management, 13(2), 131-153

(A PDF copy of this paper is available free upon request: stassiagalenkova at

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