It is my great joy to be attending the Center for Mindfulness 10th Annual International Scientific Conference for Clinicians, Researchers and Educators this week in Massachusetts. It is, in a nutshell, a gathering of some of the leading researchers into the scientific studies of the effects of mindfulness.
That in itself does require a bit of an explanation. As I am neither a clinician, researcher, nor educator, please forgive my ham-handed reflection as an outsider looking into this rarified view of the practice. The presentations are simply outstanding, but my reflection of them will be less than adequate, it is only intended to whet your own appetite for this work, and to encourage professionals and other interested parties to attend in the future.
The conference itself started with a day long optional workshop on Wednesday that I did not attend, that was travel day. But the tone was set that day nonetheless; my first encounter with people I had the pleasure of interviewing happened last night, down a darkish hallway. The lovely and brilliant Katherine MacLean, who has been on The Secular Buddhist a couple of times so far, and the also lovely and brilliant Fadel Zeidan who has been a guest once so far were kind enough to greet me with hugs.
The next day the conference began with an hour of meditation — or sleep in my case — then a light breakfast and opening talks. This day is the John and Tussi Kluge Research Symposium on Mindfulness, and Saki Santorelli opening with a light bell ring and talk. His most telling comment about the value of doing these studies was, “Why else do science?” but to help people. Right away the positive tone and sense of these being fellow practitioners was set, as the theme of “embodiment” in a very literal sense.
Next was Amish Jha and Philippe Goldin directly speaking to that theme of “Embodiment of Mindfulness: Neuroscience and Clinical Perspectives.” The working definition of embodiment being used is “the quality of instant imaging the skills that are cultivated through mindfulness practice into one’s being, actions, and phenomenological experience.” This is one way of looking at taking the practice from the cushion to the world, and the intention of the conference is to discuss the many faces of that embodiment.
I should also say that many of today’s presentations were not specifically about the speaker’s own work, though various studies of their own put in appearances, but connecting the dots of what various studies were showing about a given topic. The talks were also punctuated by very intentional breaks for moments of mindfulness practice, which helped foster ongoing attentiveness and (yes, I know, this is self reporting and not a validly controlled response!) seemed to support the audience’s continued active listening.
The first talk was Amishi Jha on the topic “How Does Mindfulness Training Work? Current Models and Mysteries.” Amishi mentioned particular interest in the changes in cultural understanding that this practice is beneficial, which were not as prevalent even a decade ago as today. She shared the somewhat surprising understanding that the scientific support for the efficacy of physical training for the body is relatively recent, studying four different areas:
1. Active states — what happens when we run, for example
2. Rest states
3. Structural changes resulting from training
4. Performance effects
If physical training for the body only got popular scientific support after study, how does mindfulness training improve mental fitness for these same categories? Amishi used the term “Embrainiment” as opposed to embodiment here. Same set of four areas as with physical training, starting with what the brain is like while practicing mindfulness meditation. — the Active state.
Mindfulness was described as “a mental mode characterized by attention to present moment experience without conceptual elaboration or emotional reactivity.” She described one kind of fMRI as BOLD ‘Blood Oxygen Leven Dependent’ signal flow that comes with neural activity, not the activity itself, as an indirect measure of mindfulness in the pushing of a button when you catch yourself “Mind Wandering”, which would be followed by an Aware state (push the button!), Shift to mindfulness, and Focus.
The interesting thing is that Wendy Hasenkamp’s study on this ( “mind wandering and attention during focused meditation”) matches brain profiles with other activity that’s been recorded in other work. This introduced the idea of ‘functional networks’ in the brain, mapping out functional connectivity. Basically (and one of those opportunities you have to be forgiving of my incomplete recounting) the idea is that we have different sets of areas in the brain acting as networks, not single points, and they are opponent processes between resting and attentiveness. That is, while one is active, the other is less so. A mind supposedly at rest is not, it is thought of as Rapid Ever present Self Thinking — REST. That’s the default mind state. Experienced meditators show different rest states than the meditation naive.
Eileen Luders and Sara Lazar’s studies show the same thing, that there are specific regions of the brain that show structural changes with meditation experience. Does mindfulness training improve the ability to shift and focus? Yes. Does it improve the ability to be aware and mind wander less? Yes, it is more aware and more accurate.
Fadel Zeidan then spoke about what we discussed in Episode 60, “Brief Mindfulness-Based Mental Training Reduces Pain: Insights from the Brain.” You can listen to that episode for more detail and to hear from Fadel directly. The interesting fact was in a comparison between the efficacy of pain reduction of morphine compared to meditation — about 20% pain reduction on morphine, 40% on meditation with the same scale. Fadel is working on a new study that should be released very shortly to address an associated topic, so we’ll get him on to speak about that soon!
Zindel V. Segal then spoke about “Emotional Learning in Psychotherapy and Mindfulness-Based Treatments: Implications for Embodiment.” He parsed experience as thoughts, sensations, and feelings, with three neural networks: cognitive control, default mode, and affective. These are also anti-correlated, it’s one or the other in most people. But they converge in the dorsal nexus of the brain (sorry, not sure if that is a commonly accepted term or a new reference) especially in depression patients to the detriment of that patient.
The depressed patient is saturated with self references, because these networks are co-activated instead of being anti-correlated — it’s like a traffic jam instead of an orderly four way stop.
Network co-activation diminishes normative opponent processes. Psychotherapy may rely on a dysfunctional self appraisal neural network, resulting in a downward spiral. Another option, however, is to use a different network of the brain to reduce the cognitive control network traffic jam, by doing tasks that do *not* use appraisal.
Zindel then spoke of Elaborative vs. Present Moment Awareness, by Farb et al. These are two distinct methods of self reference. One is over time, past to future, the other is current moment. They have different neural correlates. Following exposure to sadness inducing movie clips, for example, the evaluation network goes up, and present moment network goes down. That’s an example of opponent processes. This trade off is reduced in mindfulness trained individuals. Right insula reductions may be maladaptive, and restoration of activity is protective. Again, experienced meditators demonstrate decreased default mode activation during meditation. So, the traffic jam occur less because your REST state is *actually* restful, not busy with appraisal thoughts.
Then it was lunch time! Had a delightful conversation with a lovely Australian named Fran, who had just completed a retreat with Stephen and Martine Batchelor. Who, happily, had referred to the SBA at some point, so Fran had a context of who I was and what I was doing at this conference.
Afternoon — Philippe Goldin then spoke of self inquiry and emotion regulation. We are all scientists, and need to increase our understanding of our lab, us. The bulk of his presentation was a comparison between MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) and CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). Happily, there are things the fMRI scans show that cannot be self reported, and we can make predictions based on these scans. Philippe concluded with a pic of WD 40 as metaphor to loosen up our minds, and the question How do we increase science literacy?
Katherine MacLean then spoke about “The Effects of Intensive Meditation on Perception, Attention, and Self-Regulation.” You can hear some of this from her first interview on the podcast in Episode 23. B. Alan Wallace’s book The Attention Revolution describes the meditation techniques used in the Shamatha Project. The conclusion is that changes in perception and behavioral control are important precursors of better concentration.
She also described the potential effects of meditation on increasing one’s skill as a sharp shooter. No, really.
Hopefully this has enough content to interest you in attending future sessions. Not only do you get to hear pre-published findings about what’s going on in the brain based on meditation, but you get to speak directly with the wonderful people doing this research. I’m very grateful for their contributions to our understanding of the human mind.