This Is Your Brain on Meditation

Brown University researchers have intergrated mindfulness meditation with brain imaging and neural signal data to form testable hypotheses about the science of the practice, and the reported mental health benefits. The investigators maintain that their method of coding the reports meditators provide about their mental experiences can be “rigorously correlated with quantitative neurophysiological measurements”. The team, led by Juan Santoyo, will present the findings on April 5th 2014 at the 12th Annual International Scientific Conference of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School

A release from Brown quotes co-presenter Catherine Kerr as saying, “In the neuroscience of mindfulness and meditation, one of the problems that we’ve had is not understanding the practices from the inside out. What we’ve really needed are better mechanisms for generating testable hypotheses – clinically relevant and experience relevant hypotheses.”

“We’re going to [discuss] how this is applicable as a general tool for the development of targeted mental health treatments,” Santoyo said. “We can explore how certain experiences line up with certain patterns of brain activity. We know certain patterns of brain activity are associated with certain psychiatric disorders.”

At the conference, the team will frame these broad implications with what might seem like a small distinction: whether meditators focus on their sensations of breathing in their nose or in their belly. The two meditation techniques hail from different East Asian traditions. Carefully coded experience data gathered by Santoyo, Kerr, and Harold Roth, professor of religious studies at Brown, show that the two techniques produced significantly different mental states in student meditators.

“We found that when students focused on the breath in the belly their descriptions of experience focused on attention to specific somatic areas and body sensations,” the researchers wrote in their conference abstract. “When students described practice experiences related to a focus on the nose during meditation, they tended to describe a quality of mind, specifically how their attention ‘felt’ when they sensed it.”

The ability to distill a rigorous distinction between the experiences came not only from randomly assigning meditating students to two groups – one focused on the nose and one focused on the belly – but also by employing two independent coders to perform standardized analyses of the journal entries the students made immediately after meditating.

This kind of structured coding of self-reported personal experience is called “grounded theory methodology.” Santoyo’s application of it to meditation allows for the formation of hypotheses.