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It has long been theorised that there are two temporally distinct forms of self-reference: extended self-reference linking experiences across time, and momentary self-reference centred on the present. To characterise these two aspects of awareness, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine monitoring of enduring traits (’narrative’ focus, NF) or momentary experience (’experiential’ focus, EF) in both novice participants and those having attended an 8 week course in mindfulness meditation, a program that trains individuals to develop focused attention on the present. In novices, EF yielded focal reductions in self-referential cortical midline regions (medial prefrontal cortex, mPFC) associated with NF. In trained participants, EF resulted in more marked and pervasive reductions in the mPFC, and increased engagement of a right lateralised network, comprising the lateral PFC and viscerosomatic areas such as the insula, secondary somatosensory cortex and inferior parietal lobule. Functional connectivity analyses further demonstrated a strong coupling between the right insula and the mPFC in novices that was uncoupled in the mindfulness group. These results suggest a fundamental neural dissociation between two distinct forms of self-awareness that are habitually integrated but can be dissociated through attentional training: the self across time and in the present moment.

Recovery from emotional challenge and increased tolerance of negative affect are both hallmarks of mental health. Mindfulness training (MT) has been shown to facilitate these outcomes, yet little is known about its mechanisms of action. The present study employed functional MRI (fMRI) to compare neural reactivity to sadness provocation in participants completing 8 weeks of MT and waitlisted controls. Sadness resulted in widespread recruitment of regions associated with self-referential processes along the cortical midline. Despite equivalent self-reported sadness, MT participants demonstrated a distinct neural response, with greater right-lateralized recruitment, including visceral and somatosensory areas associated with body sensation. The greater somatic recruitment observed in the MT group during evoked sadness was associated with decreased depression scores. Restoring balance between affective and sensory neural networks—supporting conceptual and body based representations of emotion—could be one path through which mindfulness reduces vulnerability to dysphoric reactivity.

Recovery from emotional challenge and increased tolerance of negative affect are both hallmarks of mental health. Mindfulness training (MT) has been shown to facilitate these outcomes, yet little is known about its mechanisms of action. The present study employed functional MRI (fMRI) to compare neural reactivity to sadness provocation in participants completing 8 weeks of MT and waitlisted controls. Sadness resulted in widespread recruitment of regions associated with self-referential processes along the cortical midline. Despite equivalent self-reported sadness, MT participants demonstrated a distinct neural response, with greater right-lateralized recruitment, including visceral and somatosensory areas associated with body sensation. The greater somatic recruitment observed in the MT group during evoked sadness was associated with decreased depression scores. Restoring balance between affective and sensory neural networks—supporting conceptual and body based representations of emotion—could be one path through which mindfulness reduces vulnerability to dysphoric reactivity.

Recovery from emotional challenge and increased tolerance of negative affect are both hallmarks of mental health. Mindfulness training (MT) has been shown to facilitate these outcomes, yet little is known about its mechanisms of action. The present study employed functional MRI (fMRI) to compare neural reactivity to sadness provocation in participants completing 8 weeks of MT and waitlisted controls. Sadness resulted in widespread recruitment of regions associated with self-referential processes along the cortical midline. Despite equivalent self-reported sadness, MT participants demonstrated a distinct neural response, with greater right-lateralized recruitment, including visceral and somatosensory areas associated with body sensation. The greater somatic recruitment observed in the MT group during evoked sadness was associated with decreased depression scores. Restoring balance between affective and sensory neural networks—supporting conceptual and body based representations of emotion—could be one path through which mindfulness reduces vulnerability to dysphoric reactivity.