Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Structure of Mindful Brain


This new study used the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) (which identifies five facets of mindful experience: (1) non-reactivity to inner experience, (2) non-judging, (3) acting with awareness, (4) describing, and (5) observing. The researchers wanted to investigate the possible relationship between brain structure and each of the five facets. They found a positive correlation between the describing aspect of mindfulness gray matter volume in the right anterior insula and the right amygdala.

The Structure of Mindful Brain

Hiroki Murakami, Takashi Nakao, Masahiro Matsunaga, Yukinori Kasuya, Jun Shinoda, Jitsuhiro Yamada, Hideki Ohira

Abstract 

Mindfulness is currently attracting a great deal of attention as a psychotherapy technique. It is defined as bringing one's complete attention to the experiences occurring in the present moment in a nonjudgmental or accepting way. The Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) was developed to assess individual differences in mindfulness states. The FFMQ is composed of five facets representing elements of mindfulness: non-reactivity to inner experience, non-judging, acting with awareness, describing, and observing. In the present study, we applied voxel-based morphometry to investigate the relationship between the brain structure and each facet as measured by the FFMQ. The results showed a positive association between the describing facet of mindfulness on the FFMQ and gray matter volume in the right anterior insula and the right amygdala. In conclusion, mindfulness was related with development in parts of the somatic marker circuit of the brain.

Citation: Murakami H, Nakao T, Matsunaga M, Kasuya Y, Shinoda J, et al. (2012) The Structure of Mindful Brain. PLoS ONE 7(9): e46377. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046377


Here is a more specific explanation of what the FFMQ seeks to measure:
  • nonreactivity: nonreactivity to inner experience
  • observing: noticing and paying attention to one's own emotions, feelings, body experience, and behavior
  • acting with awareness/automatic pilot/concentration/nondistraction
  • describing: finding the words to describe one's own feelings
  • nonjudging of experience

Their assumption is that "mindfulness was related with development in parts of the somatic marker circuit of the brain." What I was struck by was the absence of any other correlation or associations with the five traits measured by the FFMQ. Is the test useless, or does mindfulness in general not change brain structure?

The subjects were college students, with no noted experience in mindfulness practice. How would they differ from a sample of people practicing mindfulness for 6 months, or five years, or 25 years? So what they were able to identify is that those who scored higher on the describing facet also had a little more grey matter volume in the right anterior insula and the right amygdala.

Both of these parts of the brain are associated with awareness of inner states.

The right anterior insula processes interoceptive information (from inside the body) and translates that subjective information into mental and emotional awareness. Sara Lazar has shown that those who meditate tend to have a larger right anterior insula (1). The insular cortex, as a whole (both posterior and anterior) has been linked to anxiety disorders emotion dysregulation.

The amygdala plays a central role in psychological and physiological emotion processing. It is often thought of as the fear center due to its role in the fight, flight, freeze circuit. In some studies, electrical stimulation of the right amygdala produced negative emotions (fear and sadness) in subjects. In a different study, the right amygdala showed responses to 4 types of visual stimuli (neutral eyes, fear eyes, gaze shifting eyes, and happiness eyes) - the right amygdala responded to all 4 conditions, but the left amygdala responded only to gaze shift and fear (2).

It's a good piece of the puzzle - mindfulness practice seems to correlate with increased interoceptive awareness, which can lead to better affect control, better management of physiological cues (especially for eating disordered clients), and a host of other benefits.


References
1. Sara W. Lazar, Catherine E. Kerr, Rachel H. Wasserman, Jeremy R. Gray, Douglas N. Greve, Michael T. Treadway, Metta McGarvey, Brian T. Quinn, Jeffery A. Dusek, Herbert Benson, Scott L. Rauch, Christopher I. Moore, and Bruce Fischl. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. NeuroReport; 16 (17): 1893–7. doi:10.1097/01.wnr.0000186598.66243.19

2. Jillian E. Hardee, James C. Thompson, and Aina Puce. (2008, Jan 31). The left amygdala knows fear: Laterality in the amygdala response to fearful eyes. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci; 3(1): 47-54. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsn001
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