Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Neural Correlates of Focused Attention and Cognitive Monitoring in Meditation

A former classmate from graduate school sent me a nifty neuroimaging study by a group of researchers in Italy. The article compared 8 Buddhist monks against 8 novice meditators. The monks were part of the Thai Forest Tradition founded by Ajahn Chah. They averaged 15,750 hours of meditation experience! By contrast, the novice sample were people who expressed an interest in meditation but had no prior meditative experience. They were given 10 days of meditation practice prior to the study.

Using an fMRI (e.g., functional brain scans), the researchers recorded brain patterns during an hour block involving alternating periods of focused attention (FA) and open monitoring (OM). For those familiar with Buddhist practices, FA corresponded to Samatha meditation (Pali: calm abiding) and OM was a form of Vipassana (Pali: clear seeing or insight), according the researchers. (Our garden variety mindfulness meditation is more or less based on Vipassana meditation.) Participants alternated between 6 minutes of Samatha and Vipassana with 3 minutes of non-meditative rest preceding and following these conditions.

The article is pretty technical. Since I can't really do it justice, I won't parrot back the specific results (e.g., which parts of neuroanatomy relate to which forms of attention). Overall, results suggest that meditation practice reorganizes brain activity. More simply, experienced meditators showed a different pattern of brain activity than novices on these tasks.

Reorganization of brain processes is called neuroplasticity. Previously researchers believed the brain doesn't change much after we're born. Recent research has shown that this isn't so--the brain can and does change--and regular meditation practice can re-map the way the brain processes stuff.

For the full citation:

Manna, A., Raffone, A., Perrucci, M.G., Nardo, D., Ferretti, A., et al. (2010). Neural Correlates of Focused Attention and Cognitive Monitoring in Meditation. Brain Research Bulletin, 82, 46-56.


  1. Im not as scientist - but I do like to read interesting infomation about meditation and so on.

    I have a few questions here. First of, ok, so if meditation can help 'remap' the brain, what does this actually mean? Why is this better than having a non remapped brain?

    The different brain activity of experienced meditators? What does this actually amount to? Why are is this difference better?


  2. Hi Anonymous,

    Remapping in the brain is neither good or bad, necessarily; it just means that there's evidence that meditation can change how experiences are processed in the brain. What all this means is still unclear, in my view. From what I've seen, we don't necessarily know that changes in the brain lead to improvements in living.



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