Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Mindful attention enhances brain network control and uncouples past from the present

Zhou et al. (open source) do an interesting experiment on mindfulness and brain network control:  


Practicing mindfulness helps individuals regulate attention, thoughts, feelings, and behavior. In recognizing these benefits, various schools, workplaces, and clinics are increasingly teaching mindfulness. How does mindful attention change brain function to support self-regulation? Addressing this question could inform how we teach mindfulness and whom we expect to benefit. We modeled the defining components of mindful experience using tools that probe the structure and function of the brain’s network. In a randomized controlled study of alcohol consumption, we found that a brain network’s dynamic shape predicts individuals’ future alcohol consumption and explains otherwise elusive components of mindful experience, such as being present. Our results provide new understanding of how mindful attention affects brain function.
Mindful attention is characterized by acknowledging the present experience as a transient mental event. Early stages of mindfulness practice may require greater neural effort for later efficiency. Early effort may self-regulate behavior and focalize the present, but this understanding lacks a computational explanation. Here we used network control theory as a model of how external control inputs—operationalizing effort—distribute changes in neural activity evoked during mindful attention across the white matter network. We hypothesized that individuals with greater network controllability, thereby efficiently distributing control inputs, effectively self-regulate behavior. We further hypothesized that brain regions that utilize greater control input exhibit shorter intrinsic timescales of neural activity. Shorter timescales characterize quickly discontinuing past processing to focalize the present. We tested these hypotheses in a randomized controlled study that primed participants to either mindfully respond or naturally react to alcohol cues during fMRI and administered text reminders and measurements of alcohol consumption during 4 wk postscan. We found that participants with greater network controllability moderated alcohol consumption. Mindful regulation of alcohol cues, compared to one’s own natural reactions, reduced craving, but craving did not differ from the baseline group. Mindful regulation of alcohol cues, compared to the natural reactions of the baseline group, involved more-effortful control of neural dynamics across cognitive control and attention subnetworks. This effort persisted in the natural reactions of the mindful group compared to the baseline group. More-effortful neural states had shorter timescales than less effortful states, offering an explanation for how mindful attention promotes being present.

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