Why A Neuroscientist Studies Meditation

by Carrie Heeter, 1/12/2014

In a TEDxTalk posted in July, 2011, Professor Willoughby Britton talks about the emerging field of contemplative neuroscience, which is neuroscience applied to studying the family of mental training practices in major religions of the world designed to cultivate positive qualities of mind. One of these qualities of mind is attention. being able to bring your attention back to an object that you are intending to pay attention to.  Her work focuses on empirical study of meditation.

She referenced Killingsworth’s 2010 study, “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind,” published in Science, November 12.  A pervasive tendency or habit of mind is that we do not pay attention to what we are doing, nearly 50% of the time, and doing things while the mind wanders makes us less happy than when we are paying attention to what we are doing.

Evidence for the connection between happiness and attention is found in neuroscience: attentional control is located in the pre-frontal cortex. Those with a weak pre-frontal cortex also have an inability to inhibit their limbic system (to control their emotions).  Most major mental health conditions are associated with a weak pre-frontal cortex.

Neuroscience has also found evidence for “experience-dependent neuroplasticity.”  In other words, our brains change with experience.  We get good at (and grow thicker neuronetworks to support) the mental activities we engage in repeatedly. The most powerful way to change your brain is not medication, but behavior, and in particular, mental behavior.

With physical exercise, we can tell which muscles have become the strongest through exercise. Our strongest mental habits are the ones most easily activated, that are quickly and effortlessly available to our consciousness.

Britton used the example of self-criticism. She gave the audience three seconds to come up with something they didn’t like about themselves. Only three out of more than 100 people in the audience could not do so instantly.  (“Congratulations, you are olympic athletes of self-criticism…”) The judgement neuronet is something most of us practice repeatedly throughout the day, finding fault with ourselves.  Do we know that we were practicing that skill? Do we want to be good at it?  What other neuronets are we strengthening unintentionally?

According to Britton, the good news from neuroscience is that positive qualities of mind such as attention, kindness, and compassion are skills we can cultivate through practice and training. Contemplative studies point to an array of these practices to grow new mental habits.

Britton is a neuroscientist at Brown University where she runs the Britton Lab  devoted to the study of contemplative, affective, and clinical neuroscience. The lab researches the effects of contemplative practices on cognitive, emotional, and physiological aspects of affective disturbances in the interest of the cultivation of greater well-being. I’ll write more about Britton Lab in a separate blog post.