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Loving kindness is a form of meditation involving directed well‐wishing, typically supported by the silent repetition of phrases such as “may all beings be happy,” to foster a feeling of selfless love. Here we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess the neural substrate of loving kindness meditation in experienced meditators and novices. We first assessed group differences in blood oxygen level‐dependent (BOLD) signal during loving kindness meditation. We next used a relatively novel approach, the intrinsic connectivity distribution of functional connectivity, to identify regions that differ in intrinsic connectivity between groups, and then used a data‐driven approach to seed‐based connectivity analysis to identify which connections differ between groups. Our findings suggest group differences in brain regions involved in self‐related processing and mind wandering, emotional processing, inner speech, and memory. Meditators showed overall reduced BOLD signal and intrinsic connectivity during loving kindness as compared to novices, more specifically in the posterior cingulate cortex/precuneus (PCC/PCu), a finding that is consistent with our prior work and other recent neuroimaging studies of meditation. Furthermore, meditators showed greater functional connectivity during loving kindness between the PCC/PCu and the left inferior frontal gyrus, whereas novices showed greater functional connectivity during loving kindness between the PCC/PCu and other cortical midline regions of the default mode network, the bilateral posterior insula lobe, and the bilateral parahippocampus/hippocampus. These novel findings suggest that loving kindness meditation involves a present‐centered, selfless focus for meditators as compared to novices.

Neurophenomenological studies seek to utilize first-person self-report to elucidate cognitive processes related to physiological data. Grounded theory offers an approach to the qualitative analysis of self-report, whereby theoretical constructs are derived from empirical data. Here we used grounded theory methodology (GTM) to assess how the first-person experience of meditation relates to neural activity in a core region of the default mode network—the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). We analyzed first-person data consisting of meditators' accounts of their subjective experience during runs of a real time fMRI neurofeedback study of meditation, and third-person data consisting of corresponding feedback graphs of PCC activity during the same runs. We found that for meditators, the subjective experiences of “undistracted awareness” such as “concentration” and “observing sensory experience,” and “effortless doing” such as “observing sensory experience,” “not efforting,” and “contentment,” correspond with PCC deactivation. Further, the subjective experiences of “distracted awareness” such as “distraction” and “interpreting,” and “controlling” such as “efforting” and “discontentment,” correspond with PCC activation. Moreover, we derived several novel hypotheses about how specific qualities of cognitive processes during meditation relate to PCC activity, such as the difference between meditation and “trying to meditate.” These findings offer novel insights into the relationship between meditation and mind wandering or self-related thinking and neural activity in the default mode network, driven by first-person reports.

Both depression and substance use disorders represent major global public health concerns and are often co-occurring. Although there are ongoing discoveries regarding the pathophysiology and treatment of each condition, common mechanisms and effective treatments for co-occurring depression and substance abuse remain elusive. Mindfulness training has recently been shown to benefit both depression and substance use disorders, suggesting that this approach may target common behavioral and neurobiological processes. However, it remains unclear whether these pathways constitute specific shared neurobiological mechanisms or more extensive components universal to the broader human experience of psychological distress or suffering. We offer a theoretical, clinical and neurobiological perspective of the overlaps between these disorders, highlight common neural pathways that play a role in depression and substance use disorders, and discuss how these commonalities may frame our conceptualization and treatment of co-occurring disorders. Finally, we discuss how advances in our understanding of potential mechanisms of mindfulness training may offer not only unique effects on depression and substance use, but also offer promise for treatment of co-occurring disorders.

Stress is important in substance use disorders (SUDs). Mindfulness training (MT) has shown promise for stress-related maladies. No studies have compared MT to empirically validated treatments for SUDs. The goals of this study were to assess MT compared to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in substance use and treatment acceptability, and specificity of MT compared to CBT in targeting stress reactivity. Thirty-six individuals with alcohol and/or cocaine use disorders were randomly assigned to receive group MT or CBT in an outpatient setting. Drug use was assessed weekly. After treatment, responses to personalized stress provocation were measured. Fourteen individuals completed treatment. There were no differences in treatment satisfaction or drug use between groups. The laboratory paradigm suggested reduced psychological and physiological indices of stress during provocation in MT compared to CBT. This pilot study provides evidence of the feasibility of MT in treating SUDs and suggests that MT may be efficacious in targeting stress.

Stress and negative affect are known contributors to drug use and relapse, and several known treatments for addictions include strategies for managing them. In the current study, we administered a well-established stress provocation during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to 23 participants who completed either mindfulness training (MT; N=11) or the American Lung Association's Freedom From Smoking (FFS; N=12), which is a cognitive-behavioral treatment (CBT) for smoking cessation. Across the entire sample, we found that stress reactivity in several brain regions including the amygdala and anterior/mid insula was related to reductions in smoking after treatment, as well as at 3-month post-treatment follow-up. Moreover, conjunction analysis revealed that these same regions also differentiated between treatment groups such that the MT group showed lower stress-reactivity compared to the FFS/CBT group. This suggests that reduction in stress reactivity may be one of the mechanisms that underlie the efficacy of MT in reducing smoking over time. The findings have important implications for our understanding of stress, the neural and psychological mechanisms that underlie mindfulness-based treatments, and for smoking cessation treatments more broadly.