Episode 159 :: Dr. Cathy Kerr :: Somatosensory Attention and Alpha Rhythms

| March 9, 2013 | 7 Comments


Cathy Kerr

Dr. Cathy Kerr joins us again to speak about her new paper, “Mindfulness starts with the body: somatosensory attention and top-down modulation of cortical alpha rhythms in mindfulness meditation.”

What is it that happens when we meditate? We know what some of the effects are, we know how it makes us feel, but what is it that actually happens in that moment when we direct our attention? Studies over periods of time show physical changes in the brain, but what about before that, when sit down and bring our mind on the breath the very first time?

Dr. Cathy Kerr got her B.A. from Amherst College, and her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins. She has been a lecturer at Harvard University, and is Assistant Professor at the Department of Family Medicine at Brown University School of Medicine.

So, sit back, relax, and have a nice Sleepy Time tea.



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Music for This Episode Courtesy of Rodrigo Rodriguez


The music heard in the middle of the podcast is from Rodrigo Rodriguez. The track used in this episode is “Shunyata” from his CD, Shakuhachi Meditations.

Category: The Secular Buddhist Podcast

Ted Meissner

About the Author ()

Ted Meissner is the host of the podcast Present Moment: Mindfulness Practice and Science. He has been a meditator since the early 90’s, has been interviewed for Books and Ideas, Mindful Lives, and The Whole Leader podcasts, spoken about mindfulness with various groups including Harvard Humanist Hub, and has written for Elephant Journal and The International Journal of Whole Person Care. He is the Executive Director of the Secular Buddhist Association, host of the SBA’s official podcast The Secular Buddhist, and is on the Advisory Board for the Spiritual Naturalist Society. Ted’s background is in the Zen and Theravada traditions, he is a regular speaker on interfaith panel discussions, and is interested in examining the evolution of contemplative practice in contemporary culture. Ted teaches Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care & Society, where he is the Manager of Online Programming and Community Development.

Comments (7)

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  1. Dana Dana Nourie says:

    Fascinating! I really enjoyed this talk. Not only did she explain well how mindfulness of the body affects our alpha waves and what that means to how we relate to our perceptions, but she did an excellent job of explaining how we can explore this. Really, really great podcast! I’m blasting it over the internet. Also read her paper. Wow, super cool! Brain body mapping is so fascinating and really cool how our body meditation affects that in positive ways. Yay, Dr. Kerr, you totally spoke to the geek in me, and I think this is going to be interesting and helpful to non-geeks.

  2. Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

    Thanks for that, Ted. Dr. Kerr is doing very interesting work with plausible results, though clearly a lot more is still to be done to figure this all out!

    I wonder also about the other foundations of mindfulness. Mindfulness of the body is the focus of her work and of MBSR generally, but does that mean the other three foundations are unimportant? Less important? Important for other ends? Or might it be that introducing them into an MBSR schedule, perhaps at a more advanced stage of practice, could provide further benefits?

  3. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Doug —

    Mindfulness of the body is where MBSR starts, but it involves all four foundations of mindfulness, and certainly The Mindful Way Through Depression spends most of it’s space on mindfulness of thoughts. Scientists are having to start at the very basics so they know what they are observing, so measuring the impact of body attention training on the somatosensory cortex makes sense. Work like this is just the beginning, and hopefully will build to a methodology that would allow us to study the impact of the other components of MBSR.

  4. tranquillize tranquillize says:

    This was a great podcast. Dr. Kerr does important work and is very effective at communicating it to a lay audience.

  5. cathyk cathyk says:

    Thanks Dana. It’s really gratifying and humbling to grind away at something for a million years in isolation (actually about 6 years) and come to the end of the process and feel that someone actually received some information/benefit from that work.

    Doug and Mark. Your questions/comments regarding the extent to which mindfulness of the body is relevant as one progresses through MBSR or through one’s personal sitting practice seem directly on point to me.

    I know that the continued engagement with the body in MBSR varies from teacher to teacher (with some MBSR instructors actually offering a relatively disembodied form of teaching). Similarly some versions of Theravadan practice can be quite disembodied while others use the body as a central object of focus to go “all the way” through final stages of mindfulness (Analayo describes this use of the body to achieve gains in advanced minfulness in his book on the Sattipatthana Sutta).

    I think that Zen practice is also a relevant here — since the body is in many ways the central object of focus full stop … and since the idea of “presence” (which has an entire embodied dimension) is really derived from Zen and not, as far as I know, visible in Theravadan texts, commentaries or practices.

    Jon Kabat-Zinn’s fundamentally ambiguous relationship to Theravadan and Zen practice is also relevant for understanding embodiment and the use of the body in MBSR. On the surface, MBSR appears to be derived wholly from Theravadan interpretations of mindfulness practice (with an orderly procession “up” from the body to thoughts and emotions). Underneath, however, is a deep, less clearly visible engagement with Zazen in practices such as “whole body attention” and sitting like a mountain practice … Jon Kabat-Zinn worked with Seung Sahn for many years and is himself personally very engaged by questions related to embodiment in meditative practice (for instance, the importance of posture). I know that these comments don’t really resolve questions related to mindfulness of the body (whether it is merely preparatory or is a sustained practice) since different teachers/traditions interface with body in different ways. I think my efforts to “push” the body out in to public discussions of mindfulness are derived from my sense that previous science has focused on emotion and cognitive regulation and has left non-practitioners with a disembodied view of the practice. I think the body is such an important doorway for practice because it is so concrete and available … And there is evidence that embodiment frames the way the mind and the brain process intention, movement, expectation etc … Such that I think it is very plausible that some advanced practitioners will use continued reference to bodily experience in practice rather than dropping the body and moving on to more “advanced” practices. That’s my sense, anyway. I am curious about your thoughts on this.

    And I also want to express my thanks to all in the secular buddhist community including Ted — this is a fantastic website and vehicle for community and discussion and I expect it to play an important role in helping to shape the uptake of mindfulness/Buddhist practice over the coming years.

  6. Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

    Thanks very much for that response, Cathy. My sense is that there are a large number of variables here that will need to be teased out, in the fullness of time, with differently designed and controlled experiments. From a scientific POV, of course, the historical material is pretty much trivia: what matters is what can be shown to work rather than what some tradition says is the proper technique or progression.

    My feeling, though, from looking at Satipatthana is that the progression suggested there makes analytic sense in that one works with what’s most apparent first (the body), and then one works at something like progressively subtler levels of experience. But as I say this is informed speculation rather than anything verified objectively. Objective verification may not matter tremendously to any given practitioner, but to be used as a medical model it is essential. And to that end if some techniques or progressions are more effective than others, that needs knowing.

  7. protagarusra protagarusra says:

    Dr Kerr
    I greatly enjoyed your interview with Ted, I have been a passive listener to the podcast for a couple years, and yours is the first interview that inspired me to drop a note.

    Very quickly, I came across mindfulness four years ago when an in-patient in a psychiatric hospital at a time when I struggled even to leave the house. As a cold-hearted rationalist (albeit one whose sense of perspective – despite his best efforts – had temporarily left him ) I was determined to discover whether there was any scientific basis for mindfulness’ claims. It was work like yours (and Richie Davidson, Sara Lazar etc) that in many ways pulled me free of what was an incredibly mushy-mire. Open discussions like this site/podcast are equally as responsible for helping people like me.

    However, I do have a quick question that has puzzled me. You’ll know that Richie Davidson’s famous experiments focussed very much on the amplitude & synchrony of gamma waves, whereas your studies have focussed on what the consequences of the ability to better ‘control’ (for want of a better word) where and what you perceive via your senses via the modulation of alpha waves (by the way: generalising this up to a better control of symptoms of mental illness such as rumination etc reminds me very much of the Embodied Cognition movement – would you agree?).

    I understand that Prof Davidson focussed his experiments on compassion & its neural correlates while you focussed on something more measurable (body maps), I would still like your view on the relationship of gamma and alpha waves when it comes to meditation. Is it as simple as saying, what is happening is very complex and, depending on your exercise of choice, you can improve (symbiotically) gamma wave synchrony & amplitude as well as (say through body-scan) alpha wave modulation – or, could it be, achieving one may actually have a negative affect on achieving the other?

    Many thanks

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