In a recently published study, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)Researchers have observed that mindful attention promotes control of brain network dynamics.
Awareness is a strategy for directing efforts towards educational, health and business goals. Increasing mindful attention can help a person recognize and stop distracting moments and self-referential thoughts. Decreased self-reference processes are associated with suspension of neural activity in putative mode regions, including the medial prefrontal cortex, precuneus, and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC).
As individuals practice mindfulness, the brain can direct neural activity from the default mode network to the cooperating attention and frontoparietal regions, a nonlinear function similar to other types of learning. Directing cognitive resources is consistent with automating spontaneous and habitual cognitive and emotional responses.
Study and findings
In this study, researchers investigated the neural dynamics of attentive attention in college students using resting functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and response to an alcohol cue reactivity task. Seventy-six students were randomly assigned to either an experimental group to practice conscious attention or a baseline group to simply respond naturally.
Participants in the experimental group were briefly trained to evoke mindful attention during an fMRI task. Subjects in the experimental group were instructed to respond naturally or mindfully to images of alcohol in the fMRI task, while those in the basic group were instructed to respond naturally. Researchers measured self-regulated drinking behavior for four weeks after screening.
The authors tested four hypotheses linking the stability and effort of neural activity to conscious attention and self-regulation. The initial hypothesis was that subjects would reduce alcohol consumption by reducing their likelihood of drinking if their structural networks provided greater average controllability.
Participants with higher average controllability tended to have a lower probability of drinking in both groups. The magnitude of the neural response for attentional attention was positively correlated with the average controllability of regions in the dorsal attention network and negatively correlated with that of regions in the ventral attention network. Average activity was not different between groups in these networks or the whole brain.
Next, they calculated the control inputs that the dorsal/ventral attention and frontoparietal control subnets should apply to transition from baseline (the neural state with no task-related activity) to the task state. The team found that mindful attention reduced craving compared to natural responses in the experimental group, but the average craving was not different between groups.
The team hypothesized that automating mindfulness practice would create neural states that required more effort. Consistent with the hypothesis, when transitions that occur with diminishing influence of the PCC and precuneus were stimulated, more control input was needed for the transition to mindful attention than in naturally responsive states.
As individuals gain expertise in reducing the influence of the PCC and precuneus, they can shift into a state of mindful attention and maintain it with control inputs that do not decrease linearly. Individuals who carefully attended to cues needed more control input when instructed to respond naturally than baseline group participants.
The third hypothesis was that the careful and natural response states of the experimental group would be more unstable than the state of the base group that reacted naturally. Neural states of dorsal/ventral attention and frontoparietal control subnetworks were less stable for attentional responses than natural responses in the experimental group.
The natural reactions of the experimental group were also less stable than those of the basic group. Careful attention required more control input and was more unstable than the natural reactions in the experimental group. Also, although mindful attention required more control input on average, individuals needed more control input throughout the task to react naturally.
This suggested that natural dynamics are automated during careful editing using control inputs. Finally, the researchers investigated whether the unstable and troublesome neural states in the resting fMRI were more focused on the present in all participants. The fourth hypothesis was that brain regions with higher mean controllability and resting state trajectories with greater instability and effort would have faster intrinsic timescales.
Regions with higher mean controllability tended to degrade faster and have more divergent states. Areas that required higher control input to drive resting-state trajectories tended to have more rapidly deteriorating states and more different dynamics. Areas with greater control stability had more similar dynamics and slower degradation. Quiet results were observed when analyzing task effectiveness, which correlates faster intrinsic timescales with instability and attentional effort.
To summarize, participants with greater network control moderated their alcohol consumption. Mindful attention required higher control input and was more unstable than reacting naturally. This increased instability/control input persisted for watchful group members whose natural responses were interspersed with careful attention, suggesting a learned effort not to automate and stop habitual responses.
Brain regions that can direct neural trajectories to new situations had faster intrinsic timescales. Shorter time scales show present-oriented activity that stops processing the past to focus on the present.
Together, the findings suggested that mindful attention favors regulation of alcohol consumption by biasing the control of neural dynamics that is more deautomatized, discontinuous, and focused on the present.
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