Given that my own work focuses on cognitive control, intrinsic connectivity, and mental-training (e.g. meditation) I was pretty excited to see Brewer et al’s paper on just these topics appear in PNAS just in time for the winter holidays. I meant to review it straight away but have been buried under my own data analysis until recently. Sadly, when I finally got around to delving into it, my overall reaction was lukewarm at best. Without further ado, my review of:
“Many philosophical and contemplative traditions teach that “living in the moment” increases happiness. However, the default mode of humans appears to be that of mind-wandering, which correlates with unhappiness, and with activation in a network of brain areas associated with self-referential processing. We investigated brain activity in experienced meditators and matched meditation-naive controls as they performed several different meditations (Concentration, Loving-Kindness, Choiceless Awareness). We found that the main nodes of the default mode network(medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices) were relatively deactivated in experienced meditators across all meditation types. Furthermore, functional connectivity analysis revealed stronger coupling in experienced meditators between the posterior cingulate, dorsal anterior cingulate, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices (regions previously implicated in self- monitoring and cognitive control), both at baseline and during meditation. Our ﬁndings demonstrate differences in the default-mode network that are consistent with decreased mind-wandering. As such, these provide a unique understanding of possible neural mechanisms of meditation.”
The good: simple, clear cut design, low amount of voodoo, relatively sensible findings
The bad: lack of behavioral co-variates to explain neural data, yet another cross-sectional design
The ugly: prominent reporting of uncorrected findings, comparison of meditation-naive controls to practitioners using meditation instructions (failure to control task demands).
Take-home: Some interesting conclusions, from a somewhat tired and inconclusive design. Poor construction of baseline condition leads to a shot-gun spattering of brain regions with a few that seem interesting given prior work. Let’s move beyond poorly controlled cross-sections and start unravelling the core mechanisms (if any) involved in mindfulness.
Although this paper used typical GLM and functional connectivity analyses, it loses points in several areas. First, although the authors repeatedly suggest that their “relative paucity of findings” may be “driven by the sensitivity of GLM analysis to fluctuations at baseline… and since meditation practitioners may be (meditating) at baseline…” the contrast would be weak. However, I will side with Jensen et al (2011) here in saying: Meditation naive controls receiving less than 5 minutes of instruction in “focused attention, loving-kindness and choiceless awareness” are simply no controls at all. The argument that the inability of the GLM to detect differences that are quite obviously confounded by a lack of an appropriately controlled baseline is galling at best. This is why we use a GLM-approach; it’s senseless to make conclusions about brain activity when your baseline is no baseline at all. Telling meditation-naive controls to utilize esoteric cultural practices of which they have only just been introduced too, and then comparing that to highly experienced practitioners is a perfect storm of cognitive confusion and poorly controlled demand characteristic. Further, I am disappointed in the review process that allowed the following statement “We found a similar pattern in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), another primary node of the DMN, although it did not survive whole-brain correction for signifigance” followed by this image:
These results are then referred to repeatedly in the following discussion. I’m sorry, but when did uncorrected findings suddenly become interpretable? I blame the reviewers here over the authors- they should have known better. The MPFC did not survive correction and hence should not be included in anything other than a explicitly stated as such “exploratory analysis”. In fact it’s totally unclear from the methods section of this paper how these findings where at all discovered: did the authors first examine the uncorrected maps and then re-analyze them using the FWE correction? Or did they reduce their threshold in an exploratory post-hoc fashion? These things make a difference and I’m appalled that the reviewers let the article go to print as it is, when figure 1 and the discussion clearly give the non-fMRI savy reader the impression that a main finding of this study is MPFC activation during meditation. Can we please all agree to stop reporting uncorrected p-values?
I will give the authors this much; the descriptions of practice, and the theoretical guideposts are all quite coherent and well put-together. I found their discussion of possible mechanisms of DMN alteration in meditation to be intriguing, even if I do not agree with their conclusion. Still, it pains me to see a paper with so much potential fail to address the pitfalls in meditation research that should now be well known. Indeed the authors themselves make much ado about how difficult proper controls are, yet seem somehow oblivious to the poorly controlled design they here report. This leads me to my own reinterpretation of their data.
A new default mode, or confused controls?
Brewer et al (2011) report that, when using a verbally guided meditation instruction with meditation naive-controls and experienced practitioners, greater activations in PCC, temporal regions, and for loving-kindness, amygdala are found. Given strong evidence by colleagues Christian Jensen et al (2011) that these kinds of contrasts better represent differences in attentional effort than any mechanism inherent to meditation, I can’t help but wonder if what were seeing here is simply some controls trying to follow esoteric instructions and getting confused in the process. Consider the instruction for the choiceless awareness condition:
“Please pay attention to whatever comes into your awareness, whether it is a thought, emotion, or body sensation. Just follow it until something else comes into your awareness, not trying to hold onto it or change it in any way. When something else comes into your awareness, just pay attention to it until the next thing comes along”
Given that in most contemplative traditions, choiceless awareness techniques are typically late-level advanced practices, in which the very concept of grasping to a stimulus is distinctly altered and laden with an often spiritual meaning, it seems obvious to me that such an instruction constitutes and excellent mindwandering inducement for naive-controls. Do you meditate? I do a little, and yet I find these instructions extremely difficult to follow without essentially sending my mind in a thousand directions. Am I doing this correctly? When should I shift? Is this a thought or am I just feeling hungry? These things constitute mind-wandering but for the controls, I would argue they constitute following the instructions. The point is that you simply can’t make meaningful conclusions about the neural mechanisms involved in mindfulness from these kinds of instructions.
Finally, let’s examine the functional-connectivity analysis. To be honest, there isn’t a whole lot to report here; the functional connectivity during meditation is perhaps confounded by the same issues I list above, which seems to me a probable cause for the diverse spread of regions reported between controls and meditators. I did find this bit to be interesting:
“Using the mPFC as the seed region, we found increased connectivity with the fusiform gyrus, inferior temporal and parahippocampal gyri, and left posterior insula (among other regions) in meditators relative to controls during meditation (Fig. 3, Fig. S1H, and Table S3). A subset of those regions showed the same relatively increased connectivity in meditators during the baseline period as well (Fig. S1G and Table1)
I found it interesting that the meditation conditions appear to co-activate MPFC and insula, and would love to see this finding replicated in properly controlled design. I also have a nagging wonder as to why the authors didn’t bother to conduct a second-level covariance analysis of their findings with the self-reported mind-wandering scores. If these findings accurately reflect meditation-induced alterations in the DMN, or as the authors more brazenly suggest “a entirely new default network”, wouldn’t we expect their PCC modulations to be predicted by individual variability in mind-wandering self-reports? Of course, we could open the whole can of worms that is “what does it mean when you ask participants if they ‘experienced mind wandering” but I’ll leave that for a future review. At least the authors throw a bone to neurophenomenology, suggesting in the discussion that future work utilize first-person methodology. Indeed.
Last, it occurs to me that the primary finding, of increased DLPFC and ACC in meditation>Controls, also fits well with my intepretation that this design is confounded by demand characteristics. If you take a naive subject and put them in the scanner with these instructions, I’ve argued that their probably going to do something a whole lot like mind-wandering. On the other hand, an experienced practitioner has a whole lot of implicit pressure on them to live up to their tradition. They know what they are their for, and hence they know that they should be doing their thing with as much effort as possible. So what does the contrast meditation>naive really give us? It gives us mind-wandering in the naive group, and increased attentional effort in the practitioner group. We can’t conclude anything from this design regarding mechanisms intrinsic to mindfulness; I predict that if you constructed a similar setting with any kind of dedicated specialist, and gave instructions like “think about your profession, what it means to you, remember a time you did really well” you would see the exact same kind of results. You just can’t compare the uncomparable.
Disclaimer: as usual, I review in the name of science, and thank the authors whole-heartily for the great effort and attention to detail that goes into these projects. Also it’s worth mentioning that my own research focuses on many of these exact issues in mental training research, and hence i’m probably a bit biased in what I view as important issues.