Friday, August 17, 2012

Distinct Neural Activity Associated with Focused-Attention Meditation and Loving-Kindness Meditation


It's interesting to see the emerging research on differences between various approached to meditation. We may soon reach a point when we can "prescribe" meditation form A for increasing cognitive function or meditation form B for increasing compassion and empathy.

This study makes progress in that general direction.

The researchers demonstrate that focused-attention meditation (FAM) can increase performance on tasks associated with attention, while loving-kindness meditation (LKM) does not confer the same increase in performance.

On the other hand, both the FAM and LKM meditation practices seem to alter the way the brain responds to emotional (affective) pictures. When viewing sad face, FAM practitioners activated the same brain regions that were active in the attention tasks. However, the LKM practitioners responded to sad face with brain regions associated with "differentiating emotional contagion from compassion/emotional regulation processes."

The results in this study support the premise of neuroplasticity that specific practices are associated with specific changes in brain function.
Meditation does influence emotion processing, regardless of whether the practice focuses on cognition (ānāpānasati) or emotion (mettā). Finally, the neural pathways underlying emotion processing associated with LKM are likely to be different from those associated with FAM.
The article was published in PLOS ONE and is freely available online at the link below.

Distinct Neural Activity Associated with Focused-Attention Meditation and Loving-Kindness Meditation

Tatia M. C. Lee1,2,3,4*, Mei-Kei Leung1,2, Wai-Kai Hou1,2,4, Joey C. Y. Tang1,5, Jing Yin4,6, Kwok-Fai So3,4,7, Chack-Fan Lee4,6, Chetwyn C. H. Chan4,8*

1 Laboratory of Neuropsychology, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China, 2 Laboratory of Cognitive Affective Neuroscience, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China, 3 The State Key Laboratory of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China, 4 Social Neuroscience Research Network, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China, 5 Number Laboratory, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China, 6 Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China, 7 Department of Anatomy, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China, 8 Applied Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Department of Rehabilitation Sciences, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong, China

Abstract

This study examined the dissociable neural effects of ānāpānasati (focused-attention meditation, FAM) and mettā (loving-kindness meditation, LKM) on BOLD signals during cognitive (continuous performance test, CPT) and affective (emotion-processing task, EPT, in which participants viewed affective pictures) processing. Twenty-two male Chinese expert meditators (11 FAM experts, 11 LKM experts) and 22 male Chinese novice meditators (11 FAM novices, 11 LKM novices) had their brain activity monitored by a 3T MRI scanner while performing the cognitive and affective tasks in both meditation and baseline states. We examined the interaction between state (meditation vs. baseline) and expertise (expert vs. novice) separately during LKM and FAM, using a conjunction approach to reveal common regions sensitive to the expert meditative state. Additionally, exclusive masking techniques revealed distinct interactions between state and group during LKM and FAM. Specifically, we demonstrated that the practice of FAM was associated with expertise-related behavioral improvements and neural activation differences in attention task performance. However, the effect of state LKM meditation did not carry over to attention task performance. On the other hand, both FAM and LKM practice appeared to affect the neural responses to affective pictures. For viewing sad faces, the regions activated for FAM practitioners were consistent with attention-related processing; whereas responses of LKM experts to sad pictures were more in line with differentiating emotional contagion from compassion/emotional regulation processes. Our findings provide the first report of distinct neural activity associated with forms of meditation during sustained attention and emotion processing.

Full Citation:  
Lee TMC, Leung M-K, Hou W-K, Tang JCY, Yin J, et al. (2012) Distinct Neural Activity Associated with Focused-Attention Meditation and Loving-Kindness Meditation. PLoS ONE 7(8): e40054. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0040054

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