Improve Feedback Learning with Focused Meditation
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Meditation is a powerful tool for the body and the mind; it can reduce stress and improve immune function. But can it also help us train our minds to learn faster from feedback or information acquired through past experiences?” – Jasmine Collier
Learning is fundamental to humans’ ability to survive and adapt in our environments. It is particularly essential in modern environments. Indeed, modern humans need to spend decades learning the knowledge and skills that are needed to be productive. Essential to the learning process is reacting to feedback from the consequences of actions. This is known as the “Law of Effect. Mindfulness is known to improve learning. So, it would seem reasonable to investigate how mindfulness training may improve the ability to respond to the feedback and learn.
In today’s Research News article “Meditation experience predicts negative reinforcement learning and is associated with attenuated FRN amplitude.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6420441/), Knytl and Opitz recruited healthy adults and separated them into groups who were non-meditators, novice meditators, and experienced meditators. The meditators were practitioners of focused meditation. They performed a probablistic selection task while the electroencephalogram (EEG) was recorded. Event related potentials (ERPs) were recorded in response to the presentation of the symbols.
In the probablistic selection task the participants were asked to select between two symbols presented randomly on a computer screen. One symbol, if selected, would produce positive feedback (10 points). Whether that symbol produced the feedback did not occur on every occasion. There were different probabilities of feedback, 20%, 30%, 40%, 60%, 70%, 80%. In the 60% case feedback would occur 6 out of every 10 times the symbol was presented. The participants were not told which symbols would produce positive feedback. They had to discover it themselves.
They found that non-meditators were significantly more negatively biased while focused meditators were significantly more positively biased. The non-meditators were better at not responding on trials where there was no positive feedback symbol present while the focused meditators were better at responding on trials where there was a positive feedback symbol present. In addition, they found that the more years of focused meditation experience the larger the difference.
In the EEG, the focused meditators had the smallest feedback related negativity (FRN) which involves a greater negative going electrical response of the frontal lobes in the event related potential (ERP) that occurred about a quarter of a second after the stimulus on positive trials than on negative trials. This response is thought to signal reinforcement occurring in the brain systems. In addition, they found that the more years of meditation experience the larger the reduction in the FRN.
The study is complicated and the results difficult to interpret, but they suggest that focused meditation experience makes and individual more sensitive to positive reinforcement and less sensitive to negative reinforcement. This bias is reflected in both the behavioral and event related potential data. This suggests that the demonstrated ability of focused meditation training to improve attention ability improves the ability of the meditator to detect stimuli that produce positive reinforcement. This makes meditators better at learning the feedback signals provided by the environment.
So, improve feedback learning with focused meditation.
“Humans have been meditating for over 2000 years, but the neural mechanisms of this practice are still relatively unknown. These findings demonstrate that, on a deep level, meditators respond to feedback in a more even-handed way than non-meditators, which may help to explain some of the psychological benefits they experience from the practice.” – Paul Knytl
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Knytl, P., & Opitz, B. (2018). Meditation experience predicts negative reinforcement learning and is associated with attenuated FRN amplitude. Cognitive, affective & behavioral neuroscience, 19(2), 268–282. doi:10.3758/s13415-018-00665-0
Focused attention meditation (FAM) practices are cognitive control exercises where meditators learn to maintain focus and attention in the face of distracting stimuli. Previous studies have shown that FAM is both activating and causing plastic changes to the mesolimbic dopamine system and some of its target structures, particularly the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and striatum. Feedback-based learning also depends on these systems and is known to be modulated by tonic dopamine levels. Capitalizing on previous findings that FAM practices seem to cause dopamine release, the present study shows that FAM experience predicts learning from negative feedback on a probabilistic selection task. Furthermore, meditators exhibited attenuated feedback-related negativity (FRN) as compared with nonmeditators and this effect scales with meditation experience. Given that reinforcement learning and FRN are modulated by dopamine levels, a possible explanation for our findings is that FAM practice causes persistent increases in tonic dopamine levels which scale with amount of practice, thus altering feedback processing.