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Mindfulness meditation has been shown to promote emotional stability. Moreover, during the processing of aversive and self-referential stimuli, mindful awareness is associated with reduced medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) activity, a central default mode network (DMN) component. However, it remains unclear whether mindfulness practice influences functional connectivity between DMN regions and, if so, whether such impact persists beyond a state of meditation. Consequently, this study examined the effect of extensive mindfulness training on functional connectivity within the DMN during a restful state. Resting-state data were collected from 13 experienced meditators (with over 1000 h of training) and 11 beginner meditators (with no prior experience, trained for 1 week before the study) using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Pairwise correlations and partial correlations were computed between DMN seed regions’ time courses and were compared between groups utilizing a Bayesian sampling scheme. Relative to beginners, experienced meditators had weaker functional connectivity between DMN regions involved in self-referential processing and emotional appraisal. In addition, experienced meditators had increased connectivity between certain DMN regions (e.g. dorso-medial PFC and right inferior parietal lobule), compared to beginner meditators. These findings suggest that meditation training leads to functional connectivity changes between core DMN regions possibly reflecting strengthened present-moment awareness.

There is mounting evidence that mindfulness meditation is beneficial for the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders, yet little is known regarding the neural mechanisms through which mindfulness modulates emotional responses. Thus, a central objective of this functional magnetic resonance imaging study was to investigate the effects of mindfulness on the neural responses to emotionally laden stimuli. Another major goal of this study was to examine the impact of the extent of mindfulness training on the brain mechanisms supporting the processing of emotional stimuli. Twelve experienced (with over 1000 h of practice) and 10 beginner meditators were scanned as they viewed negative, positive, and neutral pictures in a mindful state and a non-mindful state of awareness. Results indicated that the Mindful condition attenuated emotional intensity perceived from pictures, while brain imaging data suggested that this effect was achieved through distinct neural mechanisms for each group of participants. For experienced meditators compared with beginners, mindfulness induced a deactivation of default mode network areas (medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices) across all valence categories and did not influence responses in brain regions involved in emotional reactivity during emotional processing. On the other hand, for beginners relative to experienced meditators, mindfulness induced a down-regulation of the left amygdala during emotional processing. These findings suggest that the long-term practice of mindfulness leads to emotional stability by promoting acceptance of emotional states and enhanced present-moment awareness, rather than by eliciting control over low-level affective cerebral systems from higher-order cortical brain regions. These results have implications for affect-related psychological disorders.

Concepts originating from ancient Eastern texts are now being explored scientifically, leading to new insights into mind/brain function. Meditative practice, often viewed as an emotion regulation strategy, has been associated with pain reduction, low pain sensitivity, chronic pain improvement, and thickness of pain-related cortices. Zen meditation is unlike previously studied emotion regulation techniques; more akin to ‘no appraisal’ than ‘reappraisal’. This implies the cognitive evaluation of pain may be involved in the pain-related effects observed in meditators. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging and a thermal pain paradigm we show that practitioners of Zen, compared to controls, reduce activity in executive, evaluative and emotion areas during pain (prefrontal cortex, amygdala, hippocampus). Meditators with the most experience showed the largest activation reductions. Simultaneously, meditators more robustly activated primary pain processing regions (anterior cingulate cortex, thalamus, insula). Importantly, the lower pain sensitivity in meditators was strongly predicted by reductions in functional connectivity between executive and pain-related cortices. Results suggest a functional decoupling of the cognitive-evaluative and sensory-discriminative dimensions of pain, possibly allowing practitioners to view painful stimuli more neutrally. The activation pattern is remarkably consistent with the mindset described in Zen and the notion of mindfulness. Our findings contrast and challenge current concepts of pain and emotion regulation and cognitive control; commonly thought to manifest through increased activation of frontal executive areas. We suggest it is possible to self-regulate in a more ‘passive’ manner, by reducing higher-order evaluative processes, as demonstrated here by the disengagement of anterior brain systems in meditators.