Today we’re extremely excited to bring you our latest project – the raincloud plots preprint! Working on this project has been an absolute pleasure – I’ve learned so much about open science and data visualization. Better yet I can now tick ‘write a paper through twitter DMs’ off my bucket list!
For those of you who missed it, a few months ago I wrote a blog post showing off some plots I’d hacked together in ggplot. To my surprise, these ‘raincloud plots’ generated a great deal of excitement, and people from a variety of disciplines started asking if there was a paper they could cite. Things really started to take off when Davide Poggiali and Tom Rhys Marshall unveiled their own raincloudplot functions in Python and Matlab. Together with Davide and Tom, I reached out to Rogier Kievit and Kirstie Whitaker, two shining stars of the open neuroscience community, and asked if they would be interested in helping us put together a multi-platform tutorial so we could help as many people as possible ‘make it rain’. Together with this all-star team, I’m very happy to say that version 1.0 of the Rainclouds Paper is now published at PeerJ!
Raincloud plots: a multiplatform tool for robust data visualization
Now, at this junction it is important to emphasize this is version 1.0 of this project. We have a long list of revisions to make for our next preprint – and we invite you to contribute your own tweaks, modules, and excellent plots at our github repo! You can find instructions on making your own contributions here:
We look forward to your comments, feedback, and contributions to the project! For example, we’re considering adding an empirical aspect to the paper before submitting it for peer review. One idea we’ve had is to try to run an online experiment in a large sample of scientists, to probe whether raincloud plots improve the guesstimation of statistical differences and uncertainty. Do get in touch if that is something you would be interested in contributing to!
Of course, this project wouldn’t be possible without the amazing contributions of the many developers and scientists who make such amazing tools like ggplot, matplotlib, seaborn, and many more possible. As we point out in the paper, raincloud plots themselves are just one extension of a rich history of better plotting alternatives. We hope you’ll find our code and tutorials useful so you can continue to make the most kick-ass, robust data visualizations possible!
important update: Thanks to commenter “DS”, I discovered that my respiration-related data was strongly contaminated due to mechanical error. The belt we used is very susceptible to becoming uncalibrated, if the subject moves or breathes very deeply for example. When looking at the raw timecourse of respiration I could see that many subjects, included the one displayed here, show a great deal of “clipping” in the timeseries. For the final analysis I will not use the respiration regressors, but rather just the pulse and motion. Thanks DS!
As I’m working my way through my latest fMRI analysis, I thought it might be fun to share a little bit of that here. Right now i’m coding up a batch pipeline for data from my Varela-award project, in which we compared “adept” meditation practitioners with motivation, IQ, age, and gender-matched controls on a response-inhibition and error monitoring task. One thing that came up in the project proposal meeting was a worry that, since meditation practitioners spend so much time working with the breath, they might respirate differently either at rest or during the task. As I’ve written about before, respiration and other related physiological variables such as cardiac-pulsation induced motion can seriously impact your fMRI results (when your heart beats, the veins in your brain pulsate, creating slight but consistent and troublesome MR artifacts). As you might expect, these artifacts tend to be worse around the main draining veins of the brain, several of which cluster around the frontoinsular and medial-prefrontal/anterior cingulate cortices. As these regions are important for response-inhibition and are frequently reported in the meditation literature (without physiological controls), we wanted to try to control for these variables in our study.
disclaimer: i’m still learning about noise modelling, so apologies if I mess up the theory/explanation of the techniques used! I’ve left things a bit vague for that reason. See bottom of article for references for further reading. To encourage myself to post more of these “open-lab notes” posts, I’ve kept the style here very informal, so apologies for typos or snafus. 😀
To measure these signals, we used the respiration belt and pulse monitor that come standard with most modern MRI machines. The belt is just a little elastic hose that you strap around the chest wall of the subject, where it can record expansions and contractions of the chest to give a time series corresponding to respiration, and the pulse monitor a standard finger clip. Although I am not an expert on physiological noise modelling, I will do my best to explain the basic effects you want to model out of your data. These “non-white” noise signals include pulsation and respiration-induced motion (when you breath, you tend to nod your head just slightly along the z-axis), typical motion artifacts, and variability of pulsation and respiration. To do this I fed my physiological parameters into an in-house function written by Torben Lund, which incorporates a RETROICOR transformation of the pulsation and respiration timeseries. We don’t just use the raw timeseries due to signal aliasing- the phsyio data needs to be shifted to make each physiological event correspond to a TR. The function also calculates the respiratory volume time delay (RVT), a measure developed by Rasmus Birn, to model the variability in physiological parameters1. Variability in respiration and pulse volume (if one group of subjects tend to inhale sharply for some conditions but not others, for example) is more likely to drive BOLD artifacts than absolute respiratory volume or frequency (if one group of subjects tend to inhale sharply for some conditions but not others, for example). Finally, as is standard, I included the realignment parameters to model subject motion-related artifacts. Here is a shot of my monster design matrix for one subject:
You can see that the first 7 columns model my conditions (correct stops, unaware errors, aware errors, false alarms, and some self-report ratings), the next 20 model the RETROICOR transformed pulse and respiration timeseries, 41 columns for RVT, 6 for realignment pars, and finally my session offsets and constant. It’s a big DM, but since we have over 1000 degrees of freedom, i’m not too worried about all the extra regressors in terms of loss of power. What would be worrisome is if for example stop activity correlated strongly with any of the nuisance variables – we can see from the orthogonality plot that in this subject at least, that is not the case. Now lets see if we actually have anything interesting left over after we remove all that noise:
We can see that the Stop-related activity seems pretty reasonable, clustering around the motor and premotor cortex, bilateral insula, and DLPFC, all canonical motor inhibition regions (FWE-cluster corrected p = 0.05). This is a good sign! Now what about all those physiological regressors? Are they doing anything of value, or just sucking up our power? Here is the f-contrast over the pulse regressors:
Here we can see that the peak signal is wrapped right around the pons/upper brainstem. This makes a lot of sense- the area is full of the primary vasculature that ferries blood into and out of the brain. If I was particularly interested in getting signal from the brainstem in this project, I could use a respiration x pulse interaction regressor to better model this6. Penny et al find similar results to our cardiac F-test when comparing AR(1) with higher order AR models . But since we’re really only interested in higher cortical areas, the pulse regressor should be sufficient. We can also see quite a bit of variance explained around the bilateral insula and rostral anterior cingulate. Interestingly, our stop-related activity still contained plenty of significant insula response, so we can feel better that some but not all of the signal from that region is actually functionally relevant. What about respiration?
Here we see a ton of variance explained around the occipital lobe. This makes good sense- we tend to just slightly nod our head back and forth along the z-axis as we breath. What we are seeing is the motion-induced artifact of that rotation, which is most severe along the back of the head and periphery of the brain. We see a similar result for the overall motion regressors, but flipped to the front:
Ignore the above, respiration regressor is not viable due to “clipping”, see note at top of post. Glad I warned everyone that this post was “in progress” 🙂 Respiration should be a bit more global, restricted to ventricles and blood vessels.
Wow, look at all the significant activity! Someone call up Nature and let them know, motion lights up the whole brain! As we would expect, the motion regressor explains a ton of uninteresting variance, particularly around the prefrontal cortex and periphery.
I still have a ways to go on this project- obviously this is just a single subject, and the results could vary wildly. But I do think even at this point we can start to see that it is quite easy and desirable to model these effects in your data (Note: we had some technical failure due to the respiration belt being a POS…) I should note that in SPM, these sources of “non-white” noise are typically modeled using an autoregressive (AR(1)) model, which is enabled in the default settings (we’ve turned it off here). However as there is evidence that this model performs poorly at faster TRs (which are the norm now), and that a noise-modelling approach can greatly improve SnR while removing artifacts, we are likely to get better performance out of a nuisance regression technique as demonstrated here . The next step will be to take these regressors to a second level analysis, to examine if the meditation group has significantly more BOLD variance-explained by physiological noise than do controls. Afterwards, I will re-run the analysis without any physio parameters, to compare the results of both.
1. Birn RM, Diamond JB, Smith MA, Bandettini PA.
Separating respiratory-variation-related fluctuations from neuronal-activity-related fluctuations in fMRI.
Neuroimage. 2006 Jul 15;31(4):1536-48. Epub 2006 Apr 24.↩
2. Brooks J.C.W., Beckmann C.F., Miller K.L. , Wise R.G., Porro C.A., Tracey I., Jenkinson M.
Physiological noise modelling for spinal functional magnetic resonance imaging studies
NeuroImage in press: DOI: doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2007.09.018
3. Glover GH, Li TQ, Ress D.
Image-based method for retrospective correction of physiological motion effects in fMRI: RETROICOR.
Magn Reson Med. 2000 Jul;44(1):162-7.
4. Lund TE, Madsen KH, Sidaros K, Luo WL, Nichols TE.
Non-white noise in fMRI: does modelling have an impact?
Neuroimage. 2006 Jan 1;29(1):54-66.
5. Wise RG, Ide K, Poulin MJ, Tracey I.
Resting fluctuations in arterial carbon dioxide induce significant low frequency variations in BOLD signal.
Neuroimage. 2004 Apr;21(4):1652-64.
2. Brooks J.C.W., Beckmann C.F., Miller K.L. , Wise R.G., Porro C.A., Tracey I., Jenkinson M.
Physiological noise modelling for spinal functional magnetic resonance imaging studies
NeuroImage in press: DOI: doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2007.09.018↩
7. Penny, W., Kiebel, S., & Friston, K. (2003). Variational Bayesian inference for fMRI time series. NeuroImage, 19(3), 727–741. doi:10.1016/S1053-8119(03)00071-5
Lately I’ve had a plethora of discussions with colleagues concerning the possible benefits of a reddit-like “democratic review layer”, which would index all scholarly papers and let authenticated users post reviews subject to karma. We’ve navel-gazed about various implementations ranging from a full out reddit clone, a wiki, or even a full blown torrent tracker with rated comments and mass piracy. So you can imagine I was pleasantly surprised to see someone actually went ahead and put together a simple app to do exactly that.
Pubpeer states that it’s mission is to “create an online community that uses the publication of scientific results as an opening for fruitful discussion.” Users create accounts using an academic email address and must have at least one first-author publication to join. Once registered any user can leave anonymous comments on any article, which are themselves subject to up/down votes and replies.
My first action was of course to search for my own name:
Hmm, no comments. Let’s fix that:
Hah! Peer review is easy! Just kidding, I deleted this comment after testing to see if it was possible. Ostensibly this is so authors can reply to comments, but it does raise some concerns that one can just leave whatever ratings you like on your own papers. In theory with enough users, good comments will be quickly distinguished from bad, regardless of who makes them. In theory…
This is what an article looks like in PubPeer with a few comments:
Pretty simple- any paper can be found in the database and users then leave comments associated with those papers. On the one hand I really like the simplicity and usability of PubPeer. I think any endeavor along these lines must very much follow the twitter design mentality of doing one (and only one) thing really well. I also like the use of threaded comments and upvote/downvotes but I would like to see child comments being subject to votes. I’m not sure if I favor the anonymous approach the developers went for- but I can see costs and benefits to both public and anonymous comments, so I don’t have any real suggestions there.
What I found really interesting was just to see this idea in practice. While I’ve discussed it endlessly, a few previously unforeseen worries leaped out right away. After browsing a few articles it seems (somewhat unsurprisingly) that most of the comments are pretty negative and nit-picky. Considering that most early adopters of such a system are likely to be graduate students, this isn’t too surprising. For one thing there is no such entity as a perfect paper, and graduate students are often fans of these kind of boilerplate nit-picks that form the ticks and fleas of any paper. If comments add mostly doubt and negativity to papers, it seems like the whole commenting process would become a lot of extra work for little author pay-off, since no matter what your article is going to end up looking bad.
In a traditional review, a paper’s flaws and merits are assessed privately and then the final (if accepted) paper is generally put forth as a polished piece of research that stands on it’s on merits. If a system like PubPeer were popular, becoming highly commented would almost certainly mean having tons of nitpicky and highly negative comments associated to that manuscript. This could manipulate reader perceptions- highly commented PubPeer articles would receive fewer citations regardless of their actual quality.
So that bit seems very counter-productive to me and I am not sure of the solution. It might be something similar to establishing light top-down comment moderation and a sort of “reddiquette” or user code of conduct that emphasizes fair and balanced comments (no sniping). Or, perhaps my “worry” isn’t actually troubling at all. Maybe such a system would be substantially self-policing and refreshing, shifting us from an obsession with ‘perfect papers’ to an understanding that no paper (or review) should be judged on anything but it’s own merits. Given the popularity of pun threads on reddit, i’m not convinced the wholly democratic solution will work. Whatever the result, as with most solutions to scholarly publishing, it seems clear that if PubPeer is to add substantial value to peer review then a critical mass of active users is the crucial missing ingredient.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
First, let me apologize for an overlong hiatus from blogging. I submitted my PhD thesis October 1st, and it turns out that writing two papers and a thesis in the space of about three months can seriously burn out the old muse. I’ve coaxed her back through gentle offerings of chocolate, caffeine, and a bit of videogame binging. As long as I promise not to bring her within a mile of a dissertation, I believe we’re good for at least a few posts per month.
With that taken care of, I am very happy to report the successful publication of my first fMRI paper, published last month in the Journal of Neuroscience. The paper was truly a labor of love taking nearly 3 years to complete and countless hours of head-scratching work. In the end I am quite happy with the finished product, and I do believe my colleagues and I managed to produce a useful result for the field of mindfulness training and neuroplasticity.
note: this post ended up being quite long. if you are already familiar with mindfulness research, you may want to skip ahead!
First, depending on what brought you here, you may already be wondering why mindfulness is an interesting subject, particularly for a cognitive neuroscientist. In light of the large gaps regarding our understanding of the neurobiological foundations of neuroimaging, is it really the right time to apply these complex tools to meditation? Can we really learn anything about something as potentially ambiguous as “mindfulness”? Although we have a long way to go, and these are certainly fair questions, I do believe that the study of meditation has a lot to contribute to our understanding of cognition and plasticity.
Generally speaking, when you want to investigate some cognitive phenomena, a firm understanding of your target is essential to successful neuroimaging. Areas with years of behavioral research and concrete theoretical models make for excellent imaging subjects, as in these cases a researcher can hope to fall back on a sort of ‘ground truth’ to guide them through the neural data, which are notoriously ambiguous and difficult to interpret. Of course well-travelled roads also have their disadvantages, sometimes providing a misleading sense of security, or at least being a bit dry. While mindfulness research still has a ways to go, our understanding of these practices is rapidly evolving.
At this point it helps to stop and ask, what is meditation (and by extension, mindfulness)? The first thing to clarify is that there is no such thing as “meditation”- rather meditation is really term describing a family resemblance of highly varied practices, covering an array of both spiritual and secular practices. Meditation or “contemplative” practices have existed for more than a thousand years and are found in nearly every spiritual tradition. More recently, here in the west our unending fascination of the esoteric has lead to a popular rise in Yoga, Tai Chi, and other physically oriented contemplative practices, all of which incorporate an element of meditation.
At the simplest level of description [mindfulness] meditation is just a process of becoming aware, whether through actual sitting meditation, exercise, or daily rituals. Meditation (as a practice) was first popularized in the west during the rise of transcendental meditation (TM). As you can see in the figure below, interest in TM lead to an early boom in research articles. This boom was not to last, as it was gradually realized that much of this initially promising research was actually the product of zealous insiders, conducted with poor controls and in some cases outright data fabrication. As TM became known as a cult, meditation research underwent a dark age where publishing on the topic could seriously damage a research career. We can see also that around the 1990’s, this trend started to reverse as a new generation of researchers began investigating “mindfulness” meditation.
It’s easy to see from the above why when Jon Kabat-Zinn re-introduced meditation to the West, he relied heavily on the medical community to develop a totally secularized intervention-oriented version of meditation strategically called “mindfulness-based stress reduction.” The arrival of MBSR was closely related to the development of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), a revision of cognitive-behavioral therapy utilizing mindful practices and instruction for a variety of clinical applications. Mindfulness practice is typically described as involving at least two practices; focused attention (FA) and open monitoring (OM). FA can be described as simply noticing when attention wanders from a target (the breath, the body, or a flower for example) and gently redirecting it back to that target. OM is typically (but not always) trained at an later stage, building on the attentional skills developed in FA practice to gradually develop a sense of “non-judgmental open awareness”. While a great deal of work remains to be done, initial cognitive-behavioral and clinical research on mindfulness training (MT) has shown that these practices can improve the allocation of attentional resources, reduce physiological stress, and improve emotional well-being. In the clinic MT appears to effectively improve symptoms on a variety of pathological syndromes including anxiety and depression, at least as well as standard CBT or pharmacological treatments.
Has the quality of research on meditation improved since the dark days of TM? When answering this question it is important to note two things about the state of current mindfulness research. First, while it is true that many who research MT are also practitioners, the primary scholars are researchers who started in classical areas (emotion, clinical psychiatry, cognitive neuroscience) and gradually became involved in MT research. Further, most funding today for MT research comes not from shady religious institutions, but from well-established funding bodies such as the National Institute of Health and European Research Council. It is of course important to be aware of the impact prior beliefs can have on conducting impartial research, but with respect to today’s meditation and mindfulness researchers, I believe that most if not all of the work being done is honest, quality research.
However, it is true that much of the early MT research is flawed on several levels. Indeed several meta-analyses have concluded that generally speaking, studies of MT have often utilized poor design – in one major review only 8/22 studies met criteria for meta-analysis. The reason for this is quite simple- in the absence of pilot data, investigators had to begin somewhere. Typically it doesn’t bode well to jump into unexplored territory with an expensive, large sample, fully randomized design. There just isn’t enough to go off of- how would you know which kind of process to even measure? Accordingly, the large majority of mindfulness research to date has utilized small-scale, often sub-optimal experimental design, sacrificing experimental control in order build a basic idea of the cognitive landscape. While this exploratory research provides a needed foundation for generating likely hypotheses, it is also difficult to make any strong conclusions so long as methodological issues remain.
Indeed, most of what we know about these mindfulness and neuroplasticity comes from studies of either advanced practitioners (compared to controls) or “wait-list” control studies where controls receive no intervention. On the basis of the findings from these studies, we had some idea how to target our investigation, but there remained a nagging feeling of uncertainty. Just how much of the literature would actually replicate? Does mindfulness alter attention through mere expectation and motivation biases (i.e. placebo-like confounds), or can MT actually drive functionally relevant attentional and emotional neuroplasticity, even when controlling for these confounds?
The name of the game is active-control
Research to date links mindfulness practices to alterations in health and physiology, cognitive control, emotional regulation, responsiveness to pain, and a large array of positive clinical outcomes. However, the explicit nature of mindfulness training makes for some particularly difficult methodological issues. Group cross-sectional studies, where advanced practitioners are compared to age-matched controls, cannot provide causal evidence. Indeed, it is always possible that having a big fancy brain makes you more likely to spend many years meditating, and not that meditating gives you a big fancy brain. So training studies are essential to verifying the claim that mindfulness actually leads to interesting kinds of plasticity. However, unlike with a new drug study or computerized intervention, you cannot simply provide a sugar pill to the control group. Double-blind design is impossible; by definition subjects will know they are receiving mindfulness. To actually assess the impact of MT on neural activity and behavior, we need to compare to groups doing relatively equivalent things in similar experimental contexts. We need an active control.
There is already a well-established link between measurement outcome and experimental demands. What is perhaps less appreciated is that cognitive measures, particularly reaction time, are easily biased by phenomena like the Hawthorne effect, where the amount of attention participants receive directly contributes to experimental outcome. Wait-lists simply cannot overcome these difficulties. We know for example, that simply paying controls a moderate performance-based financial reward can erase attentional reaction-time differences. If you are repeatedly told you’re training attention, then come experiment time you are likely expect this to be true and try harder than someone who has received no such instruction. The same is true of emotional tasks; subjects told frequently they are training compassion are likely to spend more time fixating on emotional stimuli, leading to inflated self-reports and responses.
I’m sure you can quickly see how it is extremely important to control for these factors if we are to isolate and understand the mechanisms important for mindfulness training. One key solution is active-control, that is providing both groups (MT and control) with a “treatment” that is at least nominally as efficacious as the thing you are interested in. Active-control allows you exclude numerous factors from your outcome, potentially including the role of social support, expectation, and experimental demands. This is exactly what we set out to do in our study, where we recruited 60 meditation-naïve subjects, scanned them on an fMRI task, randomized them to either six weeks of MT or active-control, and then measured everything again. Further, to exclude confounds relating to social interaction, we came up with a particularly unique control activity- reading Emma together.
Jane Austen as Active Control – theory of mind vs interoception
To overcome these confounds, we constructed a specialized control intervention. As it was crucial that both groups believed in their training, we needed an instructor who could match the high level of enthusiasm and experience found in our meditation instructors. We were lucky to have the help of local scholar Mette Stineberg, who suggested a customized “shared reading” group to fit our purposes. Reading groups are a fun, attention demanding exercise, with purported benefits for stress and well-being. While these claims have not been explicitly tested, what mattered most was that Mette clearly believed in their efficacy- making for a perfect control instructor. Mette holds a PhD in literature, and we knew that her 10 years of experience participating in and leading these groups would help us to exclude instructor variables from our results.
With her help, we constructed a special condition where participants completed group readings of Jane Austin’s Emma. A sensible question to ask at this point is – “why Emma?” An essential element of active control is variable isolation, or balancing your groups in such way that, with the exception of your hypothesized “active ingredient”, the two interventions are extremely similar. As MT is thought to depend on a particular kind of non-judgmental, interoceptive kind of attention, Chris and Uta Frith suggested during an early meeting that Emma might be a perfect contrast. For those of you who haven’t read the novel, the plot is brimming over with judgment-heavy theory-of-mind-type exposition. Mette further helped to ensure a contrast with MT by emphasizing discussion sessions focused on character motives. In this way we were able to ensure that both groups met for the same amount of time each week, with equivalently talented and passionate instructors, and felt that they were working towards something worthwhile. Finally, we made sure to let every participant know at recruitment that they would receive one of two treatments intended to improve attention and well-being, and that any benefits would depend upon their commitment to the practice. To help them practice at home, we created 20-minute long CD’s for both groups, one with a guided meditation and the other with a chapter from Emma.
Unlike previous active-controlled studies that typically rely on relaxation training, reading groups depend upon a high level of social-interaction. Reading together allowed us not only to exclude treatment context and expectation from our results, but also more difficult effects of social support (the “making new friends” variable). To measure this, we built a small website for participants to make daily reports of their motivation and minutes practiced that day. As you can see in the figure below, when we averaged these reports we found that not only did the reading group practice significantly more than those in MT, but that they expressed equivalent levels of motivation to practice. Anecdotally we found that reading-group members expressed a high level of satisfaction with their class, with a sub-group of about 8 even continued their meetings after our study concluded. The meditation group by comparison, did not appear to form any lasting social relationships and did not continue meeting after the study. We were very happy with these results, which suggest that it is very unlikely our results could be explained by unbalanced motivation or expectation.
Impact of MT on attention and emotion
After we established that active control was successful, the first thing to look at was some of our outside-the-scanner behavioral results. As we were interested in the effect of meditation on both attention and meta-cognition, we used an “error-awareness task” (EAT) to examine improvement in these areas. The EAT (shown below) is a typical “go-no/go” task where subjects spend most of their time pressing a button. The difficult part comes whenever a “stop-trial” occurs and subject must quickly halt their response. In the case where the subject fails to stop, they then have the opportunity to “fix” the error by pressing a second button on the trial following the error. If you’ve ever taken this kind of task, you know that it can be frustratingly difficult to stop your finger in time – the response becomes quite habitual. Using the EAT we examined the impact of MT on both controlling responses (a variable called “stop accuracy”), as well as also on meta-cognitive self-monitoring (percent “error-awareness”).
We started by looking for significant group by time interactions on stop accuracy and error-awareness, which indicate that score fluctuation on a measure was statistically greater in the treatment (MT) group than in the control group. In repeated-measures design, this type of interaction is your first indication that the treatment may have had a greater effect than the control group. When we looked at the data, it was immediately clear that while both groups improved over time (a ‘main effect’ of time), there was no interaction to be found:
While it is likely that much of the increase over time can be explained by test-retest effects (i.e. simply taking the test twice), we wanted to see if any of this variance might be explained by something specific to meditation. To do this we entered stop accuracy and error-awareness into a linear model comparing the difference of slope between each group’s practice and the EAT measures. Here we saw that practice predicted stop accuracy improvement only in the meditation group, and that the this relationship was statistically greater than in the reading group:
These results lead us to conclude that while we did not observe a treatment effect of MT on the error-awareness task, the presence of strong time effects and MT-only correlation with practice suggested that the improvements within each group may relate to the “active ingredients” of MT but reflect motivation-driven artifacts in the reading group. Sadly we cannot conclude this firmly- we’d have needed to include a third passive control group for comparison. Thankfully this was pointed out to us by a kind reviewer, who noted that this argument is kind of like having one’s cake and eating it, so we’ll restrict ourselves to arguing that the EAT finding serves as a nice validation of the active control- both groups improved on something, and a potential indicator of a stop-related treatment mechanism.
While the EAT served as a behavioral measure of basic cognitive processes, we also wanted to examine the neural correlates of attention and emotion, to see how they might respond to mindfulness training in our intervention. For this we partnered with Karina Blair at the National Institute of Mental Health to bring the Affective Stroop task (shown below) to Denmark .
The Affective Stroop Task (AST) depends on a basic “number-counting Stroop” to investigate the neural correlates of attention, emotion, and their interaction. To complete the task, your instruction is simply “count the number of numbers in the first display (of numbers), count the number of numbers in the second display, and decide which display had more number of numbers”. As you can see in the trial example above, conflict in the task (trial-type “C”) is driven by incongruence between the Arabic numeral (e.g. “4”) and the numeracy of the display (a display of 5 “4”’s). Meanwhile, each trial has nasty or neutral emotional stimuli selected from the international affective picture system. Using the AST, we were able to examine the neural correlates of executive attention by contrasting task (B + C > A) and emotion (negative > neutral) trials.
Since we were especially interested in changes over time, we expanded on these contrasts to examine increased or decreased neural response between the first and last scans of the study. To do this we relied on two levels of analysis (standard in imaging), where at the “first” or “subject level” we examined differences between the two time points for each condition (task and emotion), within each subject. We then compared these time-related effects (contrast images) between each group using a two-sample t-test with total minutes of practice as a co-variate. To assess the impact of meditation on performing the AST, we examined reaction times in a model with factors group, time, task, and emotion. In this way we were able to examine the impact of MT on neural activity and behavior while controlling for the kinds of artifacts discussed in the previous section.
Our analysis revealed three primary findings. First, the reaction time analysis revealed a significant effect of MT on Stroop conflict, or the difference between reaction time to incongruent versus congruent trials. Further, we did not observe any effect on emotion-related RTs- although both groups sped up significantly to negative trials vs neutral (time effect), this increase was equivalent in both groups. Below you can see the stroop-conflict related RTs:
This became particularly interesting when we examine the neural response to these conditions, and again observed a pattern of overall [BOLD signal] increases in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to task performance (below):
Interestingly, we did not observe significant overall increases to emotional stimuli just being in the MT group didn’t seem to be enough to change emotional processing. However, when we examined correlations with amount practice and increased BOLD to negative emotion across the whole brain, we found a striking pattern of fronto-insular BOLD increases to negative images, similar to patterns seen in previous studies of compassion and mindfulness practice:
When we put all this together, a pattern began to emerge. Overall it seemed like MT had a relatively clear impact on attention and cognitive control. Practice-correlated increases on EAT stop accuracy, reduced Affective Stroop conflict, and increases in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex responses to task all point towards plasticity at the level of executive function. In contrast our emotion-related findings suggest that alterations in affective processing occurred only in MT participants with the most practice. Given how little we know about the training trajectories of cognitive vs affective skills, we felt that this was a very interesting result.
Conclusion: the more you do, the what you get?
For us, the first conclusion from all this was that when you control for motivation and a host of other confounds, brief MT appears to primarily train attention-related processes. Secondly, alterations in affective processing seemed to require more practice to emerge. This is interesting both for understanding the neuroscience of training and for the effective application of MT in clinical settings. While a great deal of future research is needed, it is possible that the affective system may be generally more resilient to intervention than attention. It may be the case that altering affective processes depends upon and extends increasing control over executive function. Previous research suggests that attention is largely flexible, amenable to a variety of training regimens of which MT is only one beneficial intervention. However we are also becoming increasingly aware that training attention alone does not seem to directly translate into closely related benefits.
As we begin to realize that many societal and health problems cannot be solved through medication or attention-training alone, it becomes clear that techniques to increase emotional function and well-being are crucial for future development. I am reminded of a quote overheard at the Mind & Life Summer Research Institute and attributed to the Dalai Lama. Supposedly when asked about their goal of developing meditation programs in the west, HHDL replied that, what was truly needed in the West was not “cognitive training, as (those in the west) are already too clever. What is needed rather is emotion training, to cultivate a sense of responsibility and compassion”. When we consider falling rates of empathy in medical practitioners and the link to health outcome, I think we do need to explore the role of emotional and embodied skills in supporting a wide-array of functions in cognition and well-being. While emotional development is likely to depend upon executive function, given all the recent failures to show a transfer from training these domains to even closely related ones, I suspect we need to begin including affective processes in our understanding of optimal learning. If these differences hold, then it may be important to reassess our interventions (mindful and otherwise), developing training programs that are customized in terms of the intensity, duration, and content appropriate for any given context.
Of course, rather than end on such an inspiring note, I should point out that like any study, ours is not without flaws (you’ll have to read the paper to find out how many 😉 ) and is really just an initial step. We made significant progress in replicating common neural and behavioral effects of MT while controlling for important confounds, but in retrospect the study could have been strengthened by including measures that would better distinguish the precise mechanisms, for example a measure of body awareness or empathy. Another element that struck me was how much I wish we’d had a passive control group, which could have helped flesh out how much of our time effect was instrument reliability versus motivation. As far as I am concerned, the study was a success and I am happy to have done my part to push mindfulness research towards methodological clarity and rigor. In the future I know others will continue this trend and investigate exactly what sorts of practice are needed to alter brain and behavior, and just how these benefits are accomplished.
In the near-future, I plan to give mindfulness research a rest. Not that I don’t find it fascinating or worthwhile, but rather because during the course of my PhD I’ve become a bit obsessed with interoception and meta-cognition. At present, it looks like I’ll be spending my first post-doc applying predictive coding and dynamic causal modeling to these processes. With a little luck, I might be able to build a theoretical model that could one day provide novel targets for future intervention!
Above you see an excellent summary table found in a seminal work by Quartz and Sejnowski. I’m reading this paper now, and aside from the die-hard representationalist instincts of the authors, it is an excellent overview of the development of neuroplasticity research and the relation of various forms of plasticity to learning and cognition. I find the above table fascinating simply because it demonstrates in one tidy arena the scope and temporal shape of brain development. You see for example, infamous studies in which the eyes of rats are sutured shut at birth alongside equally high-impact studies in which alterations in environmental complexity alter synaptic densities.
Overall, this is a list of studies in which the alteration of sensory motor input alters synaptic density and complexity in a dynamical fashion. I find it particularity interesting that the overall direction appears to be on in which increased complexity equals increased density. One stand out result is Valverde (1971) where an 20 day period of darkness is synaptically overcome when the mice are returned to a normal environment. Overall this table is a historically stunning account of the resilience of neural systems.
One big question though- why has it taken so long for plasticity to make its way into neurological acceptance?? Clearly the data was there… guess we needed fancy magnets to believe in it!