A neural basis for benefits of meditation

Why does training in mindfulness meditation help patients manage chronic pain and depression? In a newly published neurophysiological review, Brown University scientists propose that mindfulness practitioners gain enhanced control over sensory cortical alpha rhythms that help regulate how the brain processes and filters sensations, including pain, and memories such as depressive cognitions.
The proposal, based on published experimental results and a validated computer simulation of neural networks, derives its mechanistic framework from the intimate connection in mindfulness between mind and body, since standardised mindfulness meditation training begins with a highly localised focus on body and breath sensations. This repeated localised sensory focus, the scientists write, enhances control over localised alpha rhythms in the primary somatosensory cortex where sensations from different body are ‘mapped’ by the brain.
In effect, what the researchers propose in their paper, is that by learning to control their focus on the present somatic moment, mindfulness meditators develop a more sensitive ‘volume knob’ for controlling spatially specific, localised sensory cortical alpha rhythms. Efficient modulation of cortical alpha rhythms in turn enables optimal filtering of sensory information. Meditators learn not only to control what specific body sensations they pay attention to, but also how to regulate attention so that it does not become biased toward negative physical sensations such as chronic pain. The localised attentional control of somatosensory alpha rhythms becomes generalised to better regulate bias toward internally focused negative thoughts, as in depression.
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