Detection and modulation of mind-wandering

Kerr, C.E., et al. (2013). Mindfulness starts with the body: somatosensory attention and top-down modulation of cortical alpha rhythms in mindfulness meditation. Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, 7(12). Epublished Feb 13.

Abstract: Using a common set of mindfulness exercises, mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) have been shown to reduce distress in chronic pain and decrease risk of depression relapse. These standardized mindfulness (ST-Mindfulness) practices predominantly require attending to breath and body sensations.

Here, we offer a novel view of ST-Mindfulness’s somatic focus as a form of training for optimizing attentional modulation of 7-14 Hz alpha rhythms that play a key role in filtering inputs to primary sensory neocortex and organizing the flow of sensory information in the brain.

In support of the framework, we describe our previous finding that ST-Mindfulness enhanced attentional regulation of alpha in primary somatosensory cortex (SI). The framework allows us to make several predictions. In chronic pain, we predict somatic attention in ST-Mindfulness “de-biases” alpha in SI, freeing up pain-focused attentional resources. In depression relapse, we predict ST-Mindfulness’s somatic attention competes with internally focused rumination, as internally focused cognitive processes (including working memory) rely on alpha filtering of sensory input.

Our computational model predicts ST-Mindfulness enhances top-down modulation of alpha by facilitating precise alterations in timing and efficacy of SI thalamocortical inputs. We conclude by considering how the framework aligns with Buddhist teachings that mindfulness starts with “mindfulness of the body.”

Translating this theory into neurophysiology, we hypothesize that with its somatic focus, mindfulness’ top-down alpha rhythm modulation in SI enhances gain control which, in turn, sensitizes practitioners to better detect and regulate when the mind wanders from its somatic focus. This enhanced regulation of somatic mind-wandering may be an important early stage of mindfulness training that leads to enhanced cognitive regulation and metacognition.

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