Tuesday, September 08, 2015

A classification of cognitive mechanisms in meditation practice.

Dahl, Lutz, and Davidson offer an interesting classification system for different styles of meditation. Here is a paste up from their abstract and introduction:
Scientific research highlights the central role of specific psychological processes, in particular those related to the self, in various forms of human suffering and flourishing. This view is shared by Buddhism and other contemplative and humanistic traditions, which have developed meditation practices to regulate these processes. Building on a previous paper in this journal, we propose a novel classification system that categorizes specific styles of meditation into attentional, constructive, and deconstructive families based on their primary cognitive mechanisms. According to this model, the primary cognitive mechanisms in these three families are: (i) attention regulation and meta-awareness; (ii) perspective taking and reappraisal; and (iii) self-inquiry, respectively. To illustrate the role of these processes in different forms of meditation, we discuss how experiential fusion, maladaptive self-schema, and cognitive reification are differentially targeted by these processes in the context of Buddhist meditation, integrating the perspectives of other contemplative, philosophical, and clinical perspectives when relevant. The mechanisms and targets we propose are drawn from cognitive science and clinical psychology. Although these psychological processes are theoretically complex, as are the meditation practices that target them, we propose this novel framework as a first step in identifying specific cognitive mechanisms to aid in the scientific study of different families of meditation and the impact of these practices on well-being.
This article appears to be open source, and well worth reading for those interested in meditation. (I can send full text to motivated readers who have difficulty securing the full text.) I thought I would pass on just one edited clip from the section on the constructive family of meditation practices:
One of the most widely studied practices in the constructive family is the cultivation of compassion. Compassion training is held to alter core self-related processes, initiating a shift from self-oriented cognitive, affective, and behavioral patterns to patterns that are oriented toward the well-being of others...Research into the neural correlates of empathy has found that similar regions, including the insula, the anterior and mid-cingulate cortices, and the supplementary motor area, are activated across various forms of empathy...By way of contrast, compassion is linked to regions associated with reward, positive affect, and feelings of affection, such as the ventral striatum and medial orbitofrontal cortex...Studies of compassion training have also found increased activation in regions associated with executive function, including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex...these preliminary findings suggest that cultivating compassion strengthens multiple networks, each of which may affect distinct psychological processes and thereby contribute to well-being in different ways.
Empathy and compassion also affect the peripheral biology of the human body. Perceiving stress in another individual has been linked to elevated cortisol levels, a relation that is more robust in those with high trait empathy, whereas compassion has been linked to lower levels of cortisol reactivity. Preliminary studies of compassion training have found associations between the amount of time spent engaging in compassion training and inflammatory biomarkers, with more compassion training leading to decreased levels of both C-reactive protein and interleukin 6. These findings suggest that the mind can be trained to orient itself toward the well-being of others and that this shift from self- to other-orientation impacts both the brain and the peripheral biology of the body and, in particular, the way the body responds to environmental stressors. Further research is required to elucidate the precise mechanisms through which these states affect the body, and also to investigate how changes in peripheral biology reciprocally impact psychological processes and the relationship between these processes and well-being.

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