Contemplative Science
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Contemplative Science
the science of meditation and other contemplative practices
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Real-time fMRI links subjective experience with brain activity during focused attention | NeuroImage

Real-time fMRI links subjective experience with brain activity during focused attention | NeuroImage | Contemplative Science |

ABSTRACT:  Recent advances in brain imaging have improved the measure of neural processes related to perceptual, cognitive and affective functions, yet the relation between brain activity and subjective experience remains poorly characterized. In part, it is a challenge to obtain reliable accounts of participant's experience in such studies. Here we addressed this limitation by utilizing experienced meditators who are expert in introspection. We tested a novel method to link objective and subjective data, using real-time fMRI (rt-fMRI) to provide participants with feedback of their own brain activity during an ongoing task. We provided real-time feedback during a focused attention task from the posterior cingulate cortex, a hub of the default mode network shown to be activated during mind-wandering and deactivated during meditation. In a first experiment, both meditators and non-meditators reported significant correspondence between the feedback graph and their subjective experience of focused attention and mind-wandering. When instructed to volitionally decrease the feedback graph, meditators, but not non-meditators, showed significant deactivation of the posterior cingulate cortex. We were able to replicate these results in a separate group of meditators using a novel step-wise rt-fMRI discovery protocol in which participants were not provided with prior knowledge of the expected relationship between their experience and the feedback graph (i.e., focused attention versus mind-wandering). These findings support the feasibility of using rt-fMRI to link objective measures of brain activity with reports of ongoing subjective experience in cognitive neuroscience research, and demonstrate the generalization of expertise in introspective awareness to novel contexts.


Garrison, KA et al. (in press). Real-time fMRI links subjective experience with brain activity during focused attention. NeuroImage. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2013.05.030


Dr. Brewer gives an overview of the study in layman's terms here: (photo credit from this blogpost).


PDF of accepted manuscript available here:

Eileen Cardillo's insight:

Ever since hearing Judson Brewer present results from this study at last year's International Symposium on Contemplative Science, I have eagerly awaited its publication. The use of real-time neural feedback during fMRI in order to facilitate meditation training is of tremendous theoretical value. fMRI is not practical as a widely available training tool, but this kind of data should significantly enhance our understanding of the mechanisms by which we acquire and sustain meditation states. In turn, this knowledge can be used to hone more accessible forms of neurofeedback for meditators (e.g. EEG).


This kind of research is also of interest to cognitive neuroscientists more widely. By so compellingly linking subjective mental states with ongoing neural activity, Garrison and colleagues elegantly demonstrate the feasibility and utility of a neurophenomonology approach. 


For background on the method, two reviews just came out:


Birbaumer, N. et al (in press). Learned regulation of brain metabolism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences.


Sulzer, J. et al (in press). Real-time fMRI neurofeedback: Progress and challenges. NeuroImage.


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Brain can be trained in compassion - free download of trainings used in study

Brain can be trained in compassion - free download of trainings used in study | Contemplative Science |

Until now, little was scientifically known about the human potential to cultivate compassion — the emotional state of caring for people who are suffering in a way that motivates altruistic behavior.


A new study by researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that adults can be trained to be more compassionate. The report, recently published online in the journal Psychological Science, is the first to investigate whether training adults in compassion can result in greater altruistic behavior and related changes in neural systems underlying compassion.


"Our fundamental question was, 'Can compassion be trained and learned in adults? Can we become more caring if we practice that mindset?'" says Helen Weng, a graduate student in clinical psychology and lead author of the paper. "Our evidence points to yes."


..."It's kind of like weight training," Weng says. "Using this systematic approach, we found that people can actually build up their compassion 'muscle' and respond to others' suffering with care and a desire to help."

Compassion training was compared to a control group that learned cognitive reappraisal, a technique where people learn to reframe their thoughts to feel less negative. Both groups listened to guided audio instructions over the Internet for 30 minutes per day for two weeks. "We wanted to investigate whether people could begin to change their emotional habits in a relatively short period of time," says Weng.

Eileen Cardillo's insight:

I am linking to this write-up of Weng's compassion study again because a) it's a clear summary for those uninterested in reading the full research article or finding it behind a paywall and b) because the compassion training and cognitive re-appraisal training are available for free download from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds' website ( 


Weng and colleagues observed neural changes associated with more altruistic behavior after 30 minutes of daily compassion meditation - after only two weeks of practice. If you've never tried compassion meditations or are looking for a fresh incentive, here you go.


Methods sections of meditation papers generally do not provide sufficient detail to get a clear sense of exactly what kind of meditation practice participants were asked to do, let alone to replicate the meditation instructions. Making their meditation trainings easily available is good for interested readers, and good for science, too.

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10,000 Hours May Not Make a Master After All |

10,000 Hours May Not Make a Master After All | | Contemplative Science |

"There are many roads to greatness, but logging 10,000 hours of practice to help you perfect a skill may not be sufficient.


Based on research suggesting that practice is the essence of genius, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that 10,000 hours of appropriately guided practice was “the magic number of greatness,” regardless of a person’s natural aptitude. With enough practice, he claimed in his book Outliers, anyone could achieve a level of proficiency that would rival that of a professional. It was just a matter of putting in the time.


But in the years since Gladwell first pushed the “10,000-hours rule,” researchers have engaged in a spirited debate over what that rule entails. It’s clear that not just any practice, but only dedicated and intensive honing of skills that counts. And is there magic in that 10,000th hour?


In an attempt to answer some of these questions, and to delve further into how practice leads to mastery, Zach Hambrick, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, and his colleagues decided to study musicians and chess players. It helps that both skills are amenable to such analysis because players can be ranked almost objectively. So in their research, which was published in the journal Intelligence, they reanalyzed data from 14 studies of top chess players and musicians. They found that for musicians, only 30% of the variance in their rankings as performers could be accounted for by how much time they spent practicing. For chess players, practice only accounted for 34% of what determined the rank of a master player.


“We looked at the two most widely studied domains of expertise research: chess and music,” says Hambrick. “It’s clear from this data that deliberate practice doesn’t account for all, nearly all or even most of the variance in performance in chess and music.” Two-thirds of the difference, in fact, was unrelated to practice...."

Via Sandeep Gautam
Eileen Cardillo's insight:

I am surprised that people apparently commonly believe that practice alone might be sufficient to achieve mastery. Such self-flattery! I can only imagine the logic of such individuals: "Oh, if I only put in the hours, I could be just as good as Tiger Woods/Bobby Fischer/Mathieu Riccard/[Insert whoever is way better than you at something here]." Implication: I could achieve greatness, I just am too busy doing other things.


Let's be realistic. We are not [ahem] born blank slates. Our genetics predispose us to different cognitive, physical, and emotional aptitudes and weaknesses. Great teachers matter. So does having a supportive environment (whatever that may be, as it's likely to vary between individuals and the particular skill in question). 10,000 hours of practice is certainly going to have a significant impact on performance, but it's only one of the key ingredients. 


Evidence that practice is necessary, but not sufficient, is not reason for discouragement though. I agree with the author: "So whether you view the data as suggesting that practice is less important because it only accounts for one-third of the variability in proficiency, or more important because it explains more than any other factor discovered so far, is a matter of perspective."



Sandeep Gautam's curator insight, May 20, 2013 2:49 PM

10,000 hours are important; so is identifying a domain that motivates you and where you have some basic talent!

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Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering | Psychological Science

Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering | Psychological Science | Contemplative Science |

ABSTRACT: Compassion is a key motivator of altruistic behavior, but little is known about individuals’ capacity to cultivate compassion through training. We examined whether compassion may be systematically trained by testing whether (a) short-term compassion training increases altruistic behavior and (b) individual differences in altruism are associated with training-induced changes in neural responses to suffering. In healthy adults, we found that compassion training increased altruistic redistribution of funds to a victim encountered outside of the training context. Furthermore, increased altruistic behavior after compassion training was associated with altered activation in brain regions implicated in social cognition and emotion regulation, including the inferior parietal cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), and in DLPFC connectivity with the nucleus accumbens. These results suggest that compassion can be cultivated with training and that greater altruistic behavior may emerge from increased engagement of neural systems implicated in understanding the suffering of other people, executive and emotional control, and reward processing.


Weng, H.Y. et al. (in press). Compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering. Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/0956797612469537


Picture credit: Doug Savage, Savage Chickens.

Eileen Cardillo's insight:

University of Wisconsin-Madison does more standards-setting work. Most notably, they used an active control group of comparable quality and rigor and in their analyses linked behavior outside the scanner to neural activity during a different task. Bonus: the lead author, Helen Weng, is a graduate student.

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