What is the sound of one hypothesis clapping?

Read the following text. As you read it, try to empty your mind. When you encounter grammatical errors or jargon that is impossible to understand, do not try to translate what you are reading. Rather, become one with the obscurity. Read slowly, thoughtlessly, with emptiness of purpose, as though the words were entering your eyes, traveling through your head, and leaving through your ears. The ultimate understanding will be achieved when you reach the end of the abstract and have understood nothing:

... a repost ...

Recent neuroimaging studies have identified a set of brain regions that are metabolically active during wakeful rest and consistently deactivate in a variety the performance of demanding tasks. This "default network" has been functionally linked to the stream of thoughts occurring automatically in the absence of goal-directed activity and which constitutes an aspect of mental behavior specifically addressed by many meditative practices. Zen meditation, in particular, is traditionally associated with a mental state of full awareness but reduced conceptual content, to be attained via a disciplined regulation of attention and bodily posture. Using fMRI and a simplified meditative condition interspersed with a lexical decision task, we investigated the neural correlates of conceptual processing during meditation in regular Zen practitioners and matched control subjects. While behavioral performance did not differ between groups, Zen practitioners displayed a reduced duration of the neural response linked to conceptual processing in regions of the default network, suggesting that meditative training may foster the ability to control the automatic cascade of semantic associations triggered by a stimulus and, by extension, to voluntarily regulate the flow of spontaneous mentation.

Now, stare at the following graphic untill you see it start to undulate:

i-c2030a03080c2d767f1311bfda79bd49-fmri.gif

Very good. Now, download this paper from PLoS and enjoy learning about Zen and the art of Functional MRI.

ResearchBlogging.orgGiuseppe Pagnoni, Milos Cekic, Ying Guo, Sheng He (2008). "Thinking about Not-Thinking": Neural Correlates of Conceptual Processing during Zen Meditation PLoS ONE, 3 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003083

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I didn't need to follow your instructions while reading since that collection-of-words did it for me (word salad is my phrase for it).

By NewEnglandBob (not verified) on 10 Sep 2009 #permalink

Something must be wrong with me... that abstract mostly made sense. No inclination to read that paper, since it seems like the sort which gets 'suggestive' results and begs a more rigorous experimental design and more data. Not that there is intrinsically anything wrong with that sort of paper... that is I (and pretty much everyone else) ends up writing most of the time. Sort of "this is an interesting idea which is not obviously wrong."

I think it sounds rather interesting and really don't see your problem with it.

travc: proving that it is possible to make sense without grammar.

Actually there is a lot of very interesting stuff going on in default brain research. âDefault brain modeâ receives 210 hits on PubMed. If you want to understand active and self-regulating tissues like the brain when they are doing âsomethingâ, you also have to understand them when they are not doing what ever that âsomethingâ is.

There are significant implications for this type of research in sleep, autism, ADHD, schizophrenia, and other disorders with a neurological component. I downloaded the paper to read more carefully.

Har har. If you don't understand the abstract, that's your problem. I can't make sense of physics abstracts, and I'm sure some of those abstracts are written by people that aren't native English speakers. I'm willing to bet that some physics abstracts even have awkward wording or grammatical errors. I guess it would be pretty funny if I quoted such an abstract and laughed at it because "charm quark" sounds like gibberish.

The idea of a "default mode network" has been around for most of the last decade. Like the abstract says, a common set of brain regions tends to decrease its metabolic activity when subjects are performing a task, rather than just lying in the scanner. This was first noted by Raichle:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11209064

It's interesting to note that there's a "stream of consciousness" even when a person is sitting there not doing anything in particular. The aim of zazen practice is to focus attention on one's breathing. Sustained attention of this sort is difficult, and zazen practitioners are encouraged to simply return attention to their breathing when they notice that they've become distracted. If you try to sit like this for 10-20 minutes, you'll notice a calm, quiet feeling accompanied by a subjective reduction in the frequency of verbal thoughts. More experienced practitioners are able to focus their attention for longer periods of time and recover from distractions more rapidly. There's more to this than "woo," as some evidence exists that meditative training really does alter attentional performance:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17672382
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19181542

There is nothing wildly implausible about suggesting that spending hours training one's attentional ability might actually work. It was reported in Science earlier this year that a mere 14 hours of training could improve working memory, a construct closely related to attention. These improvements were accompanied by reductions in cortical D1 receptor expression:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19197069

There's nothing obscure about using the term "lexical decision task," since it's been around since the 1970s. You show people strings of letters. They tell you if those strings are words or not. Quite straightforward.

The brains of meditators of went back to what they were doing before each decision faster than the brains of nonmeditators, as one would predict if the claims of Zen practitioners are true.

The weak point here is equating "default mode activity" with the resting stream of consciousness in any simple way. The originator of the "default mode network" idea has also reported that functional connectivity of this same network of regions can be observed even in anesthetized subjects:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17476267

The significance of "default mode" observations to cognitive neuroscience has also been questioned:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17052921

Anyway, meditation seems to "work," even after stripped of its religious trappings ("mindfulness based stress reduction"). Independently of its effects on cognition, meditation seems to reduce stress, albeit not magically more than relaxing in other ways:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19432513

Meditation might not reveal the ultimate nature of the universe to you and free you from the karmic wheel of birth and death, but it can make you feel and think a little bit better.

Meditation: at least it's not homeopathy!

By inverse_agonist (not verified) on 11 Sep 2009 #permalink