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Meditation and Cognitive Control

Research Goal | The Research Project | Links | Questions or Concerns

Steve Smith’s Faculty Webpage | Department of Psychology | University of Winnipeg

Last updated: July 1, 2006

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Research Goal

            Previous research has utilized measurements of resting-baseline activation in order to localize the neural substrates related to the process of mindfulness meditation (Barinaga, 2003).  Neural activation during meditation has been measured using several different imaging techniques including EEG (Aftanas & Golocheikine, 2001, 2002; Benson et al., 1990; Kubota et al., 2001; Lehmann et al., 2001; Travis et al., 2000), SPECT (Newberg et al., 2001), PET (Herzog et al., 1990; Kjaer et al., 2002; Lou et al., 1999), rheoencephalography (Jevning et al., 1996), and fMRI (Lazar et al., 2000).  These diverse methods focused on different characteristics of the neural response to the induction of the meditative state.  As well, different types of meditation were induced in different studies (e.g., Yoga, Tantric Yoga, Yoga Nidra, Tibetan, and Kundalini).  However, despite this diversity of methods and meditation styles, a generalized pattern of neural activity appears to be elicited by meditation (Newberg & Iversen, 2003).  Specifically, meditative states appear to be inversely correlated with activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and positively correlated with the left ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC; see Barinaga, 2003, and Jackson et al., 2003).  Although measuring resting activation levels has provided useful information about the neural mechanisms involved with mindfulness meditation, it is important to investigate the effects of a mindful perspective on specific behaviours.

            The current research aims to extend our knowledge of mindfulness by examining how mindfulness meditation training can have a long-term influence on emotional reactivity and emotional regulation.  Reviews of anxiety research have concluded that actively coping with emotional events (e.g., meeting with friends or going to a movie) provides more relief from anxiety than do more passive coping strategies (e.g., watching CNN while dealing with a fear of terrorism or war; Ledoux & Gorman, 2001).  One of the goals of mindfulness is to internalize these active coping mechanisms; rather than going out to a movie, a mindful individual will be able to internally analyze an emotional situation and regulate his or her response in a compassionate manner.  This emotional regulation is not a form of detachment; mindful individuals showed initial emotional reactions that are indistinguishable from the rest of the population (Jackson et al., 2003).  Instead, an individual who has received mindfulness meditation training should be able to regulate their emotions more efficiently after an emotional provocation (e.g., perceiving or experiencing an emotional event) has occurred (Bedard et al., 2003; Davidson et al., 2003; Jackson et al., 2003).  The current research will use cognitive and neuroscientific techniques to determine the neural substrates of these emotional regulatory behaviours. 


The Research Project


            In this project, we will be examining the influence of trait mindfulness (measured by the Mindfulness, Attention, and Awareness Scale and the Toronto Mindfulness Scale) on both behavioural and neural responses to emotional stimuli.  Introductory Psychology students pre-selected based on their scores on the annual mass-testing questionnaire will undergo behavioural testing in the laboratory.  This will consist of computer-based tasks including the Attention Networks Test (Fan et al., 2002) and the Emotional Blink of Attention task (Most et al., 2005).  Volunteers from this group will then undergo functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they complete tasks involving attentional control and perspective-taking.  This project is at the half-way point and will (hopefully) continue in late 2013.



Mind and Life Institute

Questions or Concerns

If you have any questions about this project, please feel free to contact Stephen Smith at the University of Winnipeg, at (204) 786-9737, or email me at s.smith (at)  (Due to my teaching schedule, email is generally the best way to get in touch with me.)

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