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.

Reduces self-related thinking and mind-wandering

Garrison, K. A., et al. (2015). Meditation leads to reduced default mode network activity beyond an active task. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 1-9.

From the Abstract. Meditation has been associated with relatively reduced activity in the default mode network, a brain network implicated in self-related thinking and mind wandering. However, previous imaging studies have typically compared meditation to rest, despite other studies having reported differences in brain activation patterns between meditators and controls at rest. Moreover, rest is associated with a range of brain activation patterns across individuals that has only recently begun to be better characterized.

Therefore, in this study we compared meditation to another active cognitive task, both to replicate the findings that meditation is associated with relatively reduced default mode network activity and to extend these findings by testing whether default mode activity was reduced during meditation, beyond the typical reductions observed during effortful tasks.

In addition, prior studies had used small groups, whereas in the present study we tested these hypotheses in a larger group. The results indicated that meditation is associated with reduced activations in the default mode network, relative to an active task, for meditators as compared to controls. These findings … suggest that meditation leads to relatively reduced default mode processing beyond that observed during another active cognitive task.

Neural mechanisms remain unclear (review)

Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16, 213–225. doi:10.1038/nrn3916. Abstract (including 180 references). Full text at lead author’s website.

Research over the past two decades broadly supports the claim that mindfulness meditation — practiced widely for the reduction of stress and promotion of health — exerts beneficial effects on physical and mental health, and cognitive performance. Recent neuroimaging studies have begun to uncover the brain areas and networks that mediate these positive effects.

However, the underlying neural mechanisms remain unclear, and it is apparent that more methodologically rigorous studies are required if we are to gain a full understanding of the neuronal and molecular bases of the changes in the brain that accompany mindfulness meditation.

Sex-divergent findings re hippocampal dimensions

Luders, E., Thompson, P. M., & Kurth, F. (2015). Larger Hippocampal Dimensions in Meditation Practitioners: Differential Effects in Women and Men. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 186. To access full text, go to Abstract and retrieve provisional PDF.

hippopotamus-baby-beautiful-164-1On average, the human hippocampus shows structural differences between meditators and non-meditators as well as between men and women. However, there is a lack of research exploring possible sex effects on hippocampal anatomy in the framework of meditation.

Thus, we obtained high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging data from 30 long-term meditation practitioners (15 men / 15 women) and 30 well-matched control subjects (15 men / 15 women) to assess if hippocampus-specific effects manifest differently in male and female brains.

Hippocampal dimensions were enlarged both in male and in female meditators when compared to sex- and age-matched controls. However, meditation effects differed between men and women in magnitude, laterality, and location on the hippocampal surface. Such sex-divergent findings may be due to genetic (innate) or acquired differences between male and female brains in the areas involved in meditation and/or suggest that male and female hippocampi are differently receptive to mindfulness practices.

How does loving-kindness meditation alter brain and body?

Mascaro, J. S., Darcher, A., Negi, L. T., & Raison, C. (2015). The neural mediators of kindness-based meditation: a theoretical model. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 109. To access full text, click here, then open PDF.

brain-budAbstract. Although kindness-based contemplative practices are increasingly employed by clinicians and cognitive researchers to enhance prosocial emotions, social cognitive skills, and well-being, and as a tool to understand the basic workings of the social mind, we lack a coherent theoretical model with which to test the mechanisms by which kindness-based meditation may alter the brain and body.

Here we link contemplative accounts of compassion and lovingkindness practices with research from social cognitive neuroscience and social psychology to generate predictions about how diverse practices may alter brain structure and function and related aspects of social cognition.

Contingent on the nuances of the practice, kindness-based meditation may enhance the neural systems related to faster and more basic perceptual or motor simulation processes, simulation of another’s affective body state, slower and higher-level perspective-taking, modulatory processes such as emotion regulation and self/other discrimination, and combinations thereof.

This theoretical model will be discussed alongside bestpractices for testing such a model and potential implications and applications of future work.