Meditation and prosocial behaviors (review & meta-analysis)

Kreplin, U., Farias, M., & Brazil, I. A. (2018). The limited prosocial* effects of meditation: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Scientific reports, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 2403, DOI:10.1038/s41598-018-20299-z. Full text.

 Abstract. Many individuals believe that meditation has the capacity to not only alleviate mental-illness but to improve prosociality. This article systematically reviewed and meta-analysed the effects of meditation interventions on prosociality in randomized controlled trials of healthy adults.

Five types of social behaviours were identified: compassion, empathy, aggression, connectedness and prejudice. Although we found a moderate increase in prosociality following meditation, further analysis indicated that this effect was qualified by two factors: type of prosociality and methodological quality.

Meditation interventions had an effect on compassion and empathy, but not on aggression, connectedness or prejudice. We further found that compassion levels only increased under two conditions: when the teacher in the meditation intervention was a co-author in the published study; and when the study employed a passive (waiting list) control group but not an active one.

Contrary to popular beliefs that meditation will lead to prosocial changes, the results of this meta-analysis showed that the effects of meditation on prosociality were qualified by the type of prosociality and methodological quality of the study. We conclude by highlighting a number of biases and theoretical problems that need addressing to improve quality of research in this area.

* Prosocial behavior, or “voluntary behavior intended to benefit another”, is a social behavior that “benefit[s] other people or society as a whole”, “such as helping, sharing, donating, co-operating, and volunteering” (Wikipedia).

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Incorporating mindfulness into leadership

Mohapel, P. (2018). The neurobiology of focus and distraction: The case for incorporating mindfulness into leadership. In Healthcare Management Forum (p. 0840470417746414). SAGE Publications.

Abstract. Increasingly health leaders are experiencing greater demands and pressures, which require the need for better focus while limiting unwarranted distractions. This article offers a neurobiological explanation of how the brain focuses and becomes distracted, in order to help health leaders gain insight into their own effectiveness.

Two main neural circuits are contrasted: the mind-wandering default mode circuit and the attentional central executive system. These two systems act in an antagonistic pairing, where the degree of toggling between systems is associated with the degree a person can sustain focus and filter out unwarranted distractions. Excessive multitasking appears to compromise the neural switch of these two systems, thereby diminishing our focus and concentration. In contrast, mindfulness practice is shown to have the opposite effect by enhancing the neural switch, thereby enhancing leadership focus that can lead to greater flexibility, foresight, regulation, and creativity.

To conclude, leaders who are excessively distracted, such as with multitasking, may be compromising cognitive brain functioning, while engaging in mindfulness may replenish the brain and thereby enhance leaders’ ability to sustain focus and tap into higher cognitive functioning.

Is meditation associated with altered brain structure?

Fox, K. C., et al. (2014). Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, no. 43, pp. 48-73, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2014.03.016. Full text.

From the Abstract. Numerous studies have begun to address how the brain’s gray and white matter may be shaped by meditation. This research is yet to be integrated, however, and two fundamental questions remain: Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? If so, what is the magnitude of these differences?

To address these questions, we reviewed and meta-analyzed 123 brain morphology differences from 21 neuroimaging studies examining ∼300 meditation practitioners. Anatomical likelihood estimation meta-analysis found eight brain regions consistently altered in meditators, including areas key to meta-awareness (frontopolar cortex/BA 10), exteroceptive and interoceptive body awareness (sensory cortices and insula), memory consolidation and reconsolidation (hippocampus), self and emotion regulation (anterior and mid cingulate; orbitofrontal cortex), and intra- and interhemispheric communication (superior longitudinal fasciculus; corpus callosum). 

Publication bias and methodological limitations are strong concerns, however. Further research using rigorous methods is required to definitively link meditation practice to altered brain morphology.

For an update by the same authors, see “Alterations in the structure of the brain — review & implications.” 

Alterations in the structure of the brain — review & implications

Fox, Kieran C. R., & Rael B. Cahn. (2018). “Meditation and the brain in health and disease.” Forthcoming in The Oxford Handbook of Meditation, Farias, Brazier, & Lalljee, Eds. Full text.

The aim of this chapter is to provide an accessible introduction to the neuroscience of meditation. First, we review studies examining the relationship between meditation and alterations in the structure of the brain’s grey and white matter (so-called morphometric neuroimaging).

Next, we discuss findings from functional neuroimaging methods, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans, and what they have taught us about the brain’s patterns of activity during different forms of meditation, how meditation alters the brain’s response to various tasks and experiences, and how the expertise of long-term meditators might be harnessed to help us explore subtle aspects of human cognition.

Third, we review electrophysiological methods of measuring brain activity during meditation, such as electroencephalography (EEG), and how these findings relate to what we have learned from morphometric and functional neuroimaging.

Finally, we discuss the implications of this research and of meditation more generally for brain health and psychological well-being. Specifically, we focus on how meditation might ameliorate the deficits related to cognitive aging, as well as help ameliorate the symptoms and underlying neural substrates associated with neurodegenerative and psychiatric disease.

Self-management of Stage 2 Parkinson’s disease

Vandenberg, Brooke, E., et al. Mindfulness-based lifestyle programs for the self-management of Parkinson’s disease in Australia, Health Promotion Internationalhttps://doi.org/10.1093/heapro/day021.

Abstract. Despite emerging evidence suggesting positive outcomes of mindfulness training for the self-management of other neuro-degenerative diseases, limited research has explored its effect on the self-management of Parkinson’s disease (PD).

We aimed to characterize the experiences of individuals participating in a facilitated, group mindfulness-based lifestyle program for community living adults with Stage 2 PD and explore how the program influenced beliefs about self-management of their disease.

Our longitudinal qualitative study was embedded within a randomized controlled trial exploring the impact of a 6-week mindfulness-based lifestyle program on patient-reported function. The study was set in Melbourne, Australia in 2012–2013. We conducted semi-structured interviews with participants before, immediately after, and 6 months following participation in the program. Sixteen participants were interviewed prior to commencing the program. Of these, 12 were interviewed shortly after its conclusion, and 9 interviewed at 6 months.

Prior to the program, participants felt a lack of control over their illness. A desire for control and a need for alternative tools for managing the progression of PD motivated many to engage with the program. Following the program, where participants experienced an increase in mindfulness, many became more accepting of disease progression and reported improved social relationships and self-confidence in managing their disease.

Mindfulness-based lifestyle programs have the potential for increasing both participants’ sense of control over their reactions to disease symptoms as well as social connectedness. Community-based mindfulness training may provide participants with tools for self-managing a number of the consequences of Stage 2 PD.

Questions that warrant research attention

Davidson, R. J., & Dahl, C. J. (2018). Outstanding challenges in scientific research on mindfulness and meditation. Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol 13, no. 1, pp. 62-5, DOI: 10.1177/1745691617718358. Full text.

From the Introduction. The article by Van Dam and colleagues (see previous post in this blog) presents a very useful corrective to the hype and claims associated with the burgeoning interest in mindfulness and meditation. The authors review a number of key issues and concerns with research in this domain including the problematic meaning of the term “mindfulness,” the differing measures of mindfulness and challenges to their construct validity, challenges for clinical intervention methodology including the variations in the types and content of various mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) that have been examined, the growing evidence of potential adverse effects in a small subset of individuals who partake of MBIs, and the challenge of conducting neuro-scientific research in this area. For each of these topics, the authors also provide a prescriptive vision for the types of research that are needed to address the concerns and challenges that are described.

While we wholeheartedly agree with the central issues highlighted in this article and believe that this article, along with several other critical articles that have appeared recently, will provide an important recalibration of the claims and conclusions that are warranted from the contemporary scientific literature on this topic, we believe that the prescriptive agenda offered in their article can be usefully expanded.

In this commentary, we address a few of the specific concerns raised by the authors and show that they are not specific to mindfulness or meditation research and that attention to the broader context of these challenges can be helpful in addressing them. Second, we widen the prescriptive agenda offered in their article and underscore several key questions that the authors did not raise that warrant serious research attention for this
field to have impact. In this commentary we make five key points that build from the issues raised by Van Dam and colleagues.

Towards understanding neuronal mechanisms of meditative states

Irrmischer, M., et al. (2018). Controlling the Temporal Structure of Brain Oscillations by Focused Attention Meditation. Human brain mapping. Vol. 39, no 4, pp. 1825-38, https://doi.org/10.1002/hbm.23971. Full text.

From the Introduction. Meditation is frequently described as a form of mental training to cultivate cognitive capabilities, including attention, concentration, and emotion regulation. With its popularity for attaining relaxation, for physical and mental health, and enhanced awareness and absorption, there is increasing scientific interest in understanding the brain mechanisms involved. . . .

We hypothesized that attention is balanced at a point of instability between order and disorder, characteristic of so‐called critical systems, which allows transient focus and swift change. As practitioners restrain from distraction during meditation to maintain a single focus, we predict that they might experience a shift from more complex brain dynamics to a state of reduced information propagation and reduced temporal complexity of oscillations. Using data from two independent laboratories, we here show that the temporal complexity of neuronal oscillations is affected by FA (focused attention) meditation training. Furthermore, it is sensitive to the meditative state and the subjective experience of absorption.