Meditation May Lower the Volume on Distractions
effects of mindfulness meditation on pain and working memory may result
from an improved ability to regulate a crucial brain wave called the
alpha rhythm. This rhythm is thought to "turn down the volume"
on distracting information, which suggests that a key value of meditation
may be helping the brain deal with an often-overstimulating world.
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from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Harvard Medical School
and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported in April of
2011 that modulation of the alpha rhythm in response to attention-directing
cues was faster and significantly more enhanced among study participants
who completed an eight-week mindfulness meditation program than in
a control group. The report will appear in the journal Brain Research
Bulletin and has been released online.
meditation has been reported to enhance numerous mental abilities,
including rapid memory recall," says Catherine Kerr, PhD, of
the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH and the Osher
Research Center at Harvard Medical School, co-lead author of the
report. "Our discovery that mindfulness meditators more quickly
adjusted the brain wave that screens out distraction could explain
their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts."
cells use particular frequencies or waves to regulate the flow of
information in much the same way that radio stations broadcast at
specific frequencies. One frequency, the alpha rhythm, is particularly
active in the cells that process touch, sight and sound in the brain's
outmost layer, called the cortex, where it helps to suppress irrelevant
or distracting sensations and regulate the flow of sensory information
between brain regions.
studies have suggested that attention can be used to regulate the
alpha rhythm and, in turn, sensory perception. When an individual
anticipates a touch, sight or sound, the focusing of attention toward
the expected stimulus induces a lower alpha wave height in cortical
cells that would handle the expected sensation, which actually "turns
up the volume" of those cells.
same time the height of the alpha wave in cells that would handle
irrelevant or distracting information increases, turning the volume
in those regions down. Because mindfulness meditation in which
practitioners direct nonjudgmental attention to their sensations,
feelings and state of mind has been associated with improved
performance on attention-based tasks, the research team decided to
investigate whether individuals trained in the practice also exhibited
enhanced regulation of the timing and intensity of alpha rhythms.
tested 12 healthy volunteers with no previous experience in meditation.
Half completed the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program
developed at the University of Massachusetts. The other half were
asked not to engage in any type of meditation during the study period.
Using magnetoencephalography (MEG), an imaging technique that detects
the location of brain activity with extreme precision, the researchers
measured participants' alpha rhythms before, during and after the
they measured alpha rhythms in the brain area that processes signals
from the left hand while participants were asked to direct their attention
to either their left hand or left foot. Participants' abilities to
adjust the alpha rhythm in cortical cells associated with the hand,
depending on where their attention was directed, were recorded during
the milliseconds immediately after they received an attention cue.
all participants had showed some attention-related alpha rhythm changes
at the beginning of the study, at the end of the eight weeks, those
who completed the mindfulness meditation training made faster and
significantly more pronounced attention-based adjustments to the alpha
rhythm than the non-meditators did.
result may explain reports that mindfulness meditation decreases
pain perception," says Kerr. "Enhanced ability to turn
the alpha rhythm up or down could give practitioners' greater ability
to regulate pain sensation."
also sheds light on how meditation may affect basic brain function,
explains Stephanie Jones, PhD, of the Martinos Center, CO-lead author
of the paper. "Given what we know about how alpha waves arise
from electrical currents in sensory cortical cells, these data suggest
that mindfulness meditation practitioners can use the mind to enhance
regulation of currents in targeted cortical cells. The implications
extend far beyond meditation and give us clues about possible ways
to help people better regulate a brain rhythm that is dysregulated
in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions."
Kerr is an instructor in Medicine and Jones an instructor in Pediatrics
at Harvard Medical School (HMS).
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