Long-Term Meditation Changes Large-Scale Brain Connectivity
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
There has accumulated a large amount of research demonstrating that meditation practice has significant benefits for psychological, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. One way that meditation practices may produce these benefits is by altering the brain. The nervous system is a dynamic entity, constantly changing and adapting to the environment. It will change size, activity, and connectivity in response to experience. These changes in the brain are called neuroplasticity. Over the last decade neuroscience has been studying the effects of contemplative practices on the brain and has identified neuroplastic changes in widespread areas. In other words, meditation practice appears to mold and change the brain structures and connectivity, producing psychological, physical, and spiritual benefits, especially mindfulness.
Two in particular types of meditation can be characterized on a continuum with the degree and type of attentional focus. In focused attention meditation, the individual practices paying attention to a single meditation object, learns to filter out distracting stimuli, including thoughts, and learns to stay focused on the present moment, filtering out thoughts centered around the past or future. In open monitoring meditation, the individual opens up awareness to everything that’s being experienced regardless of its origin. These include bodily sensations, external stimuli, and even thoughts. The meditator just observes these thoughts and lets them arise and fall away without paying them any further attention. These differences are likely to produce different effects on the practitioners, their psychology and their brains.
In today’s Research News article “Long-Term and Meditation-Specific Modulations of Brain Connectivity Revealed Through Multivariate Pattern Analysis.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10164028/ ) Guidotti and colleagues recruited established long-term meditators (Buddhist Monks) and novice meditators. The novices practiced both focused and open monitoring meditation for 30 minutes per day for 10 days. Both groups then practiced both focused and open monitoring meditation while having their brains scanned with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).
The found that large-scale functional interactions in the brain could better predict both focused and open monitoring meditation styles in practiced meditators as opposed to novices. Open Monitoring meditation enhanced connectivity between regions that process somatosensory, auditory, and visual information. On the other hand, Focused Meditation enhanced connectivity between regions that are involved in attentional control and self-awareness.
These findings suggest that long-term meditation changes the brain to process different information in large-scale networks for focused versus open monitoring meditations, but not so much in novice meditators. Hence, long-term meditation practice changes the brain to facilitate brain processing of meditation type specific functions.
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Guidotti R, D’Andrea A, Basti A, Raffone A, Pizzella V, Marzetti L. Long-Term and Meditation-Specific Modulations of Brain Connectivity Revealed Through Multivariate Pattern Analysis. Brain Topogr. 2023 May;36(3):409-418. doi: 10.1007/s10548-023-00950-3. Epub 2023 Mar 28. PMID: 36977909; PMCID: PMC10164028.
Neuroimaging studies have provided evidence that extensive meditation practice modifies the functional and structural properties of the human brain, such as large-scale brain region interplay. However, it remains unclear how different meditation styles are involved in the modulation of these large-scale brain networks. Here, using machine learning and fMRI functional connectivity, we investigated how focused attention and open monitoring meditation styles impact large-scale brain networks. Specifically, we trained a classifier to predict the meditation style in two groups of subjects: expert Theravada Buddhist monks and novice meditators. We showed that the classifier was able to discriminate the meditation style only in the expert group. Additionally, by inspecting the trained classifier, we observed that the Anterior Salience and the Default Mode networks were relevant for the classification, in line with their theorized involvement in emotion and self-related regulation in meditation. Interestingly, results also highlighted the role of specific couplings between areas crucial for regulating attention and self-awareness as well as areas related to processing and integrating somatosensory information. Finally, we observed a larger involvement of left inter-hemispheric connections in the classification. In conclusion, our work supports the evidence that extensive meditation practice modulates large-scale brain networks, and that the different meditation styles differentially affect connections that subserve style-specific functions.