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, 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.

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, 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.

Neurobiology of wisdom

mindfulness in schools

From Mindful Schools website. As the scope of science expands, concepts that were previously confined to the humanities are receiving scientific attention. One recent example of this trend is the scientific exploration of wisdom. Traditionally, discussions of wisdom have been confined to disciplines such as philosophy. Philosophy is, after all, literally the ‘love of wisdom.’

A few years ago, two psychiatrists from University of California San Diego published an article in the Archives of General Psychiatry titled, “Neurobiology of Wisdom.” They suggest that “wisdom is a unique psychological construct, not just a collection of desirable traits with a convenient unifying label.” The authors defined wisdom as six key components and discuss the neurobiological characteristics underlying each.

What is striking how these six components of wisdom dovetail with outcomes relevant to mindfulness practice. . . . more

Meditation-induced pain relief

Zeidan, F., et al. (2015). Mindfulness Meditation-Based Pain Relief Employs Different Neural Mechanisms Than Placebo and Sham Mindfulness Meditation-Induced Analgesia. The Journal of Neuroscience, 35(46), 15307-15325. Full text.

Significance Statement. Recent findings have demonstrated that mindfulness meditation significantly reduces pain. Given that the “gold standard” for evaluating the efficacy of behavioral interventions is based on appropriate placebo comparisons, it is imperative that we establish whether there is an effect supporting meditation-related pain relief above and beyond the effects of placebo.

Here, we provide novel evidence demonstrating that mindfulness meditation produces greater pain relief and employs distinct neural mechanisms than … sham mindfulness meditation [placebo]. Specifically, mindfulness meditation-induced pain relief activated higher order brain regions, including the orbitofrontal and cingulate cortices. In contrast, placebo analgesia was associated with decreased pain-related brain activation.

These findings demonstrate that mindfulness meditation reduces pain through unique mechanisms and may foster greater acceptance of meditation as an adjunct pain therapy.

Medical imaging evidence supports meditation in the treatment of depression

Annells, S., Kho, K., & Bridge, P. (2015). Meditate don’t medicate: How medical imaging evidence supports the role of meditation in the treatment of depression. Radiography. Published prior to inclusion in an issue.

Depression is a debilitating psychiatric disorder that affects a large proportion of the population. The current treatment for depression involves anti-depressant medication which is associated with side effects and a heightened risk of relapse.

Method. A systematic literature review was performed to determine the value of medical imaging studies in measuring the impact of meditation on depression.

Results. Medical imaging studies have successfully demonstrated that meditation may counteract or prevent the physiological cause of depression by decreasing amygdala activity and increasing grey matter volume and activity of the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex and other brain regions associated with attention and emotional self-regulation.

Recent advances in functional imaging have enabled visualisation of neural plasticity within the brain. This has shown that for meditators, practice-induced alterations could be due to micro-anatomical processes that may represent an increased functional capacity within the brain regions activated. These changes within brain physiology in association with the skills gained during meditation such as self-regulation, mental processing of negative information and relaxation techniques could potentially lead to a permanent cure for depression and thus prevent relapse.

Conclusions. The results of this review suggest that medical imaging has a valuable role to play in evidencing the physiological changes within the brain caused by meditation that counteract those that cause depression. These studies indicate that meditation is a viable alternative to medication for clinical treatment of patients with depression. More rigorous longitudinal imaging studies are proposed to enhance understanding of the neural pathways and mechanisms of meditation.