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Mindful : June 2018
We often hear people say that one sub-organ of the brain is responsible for x function and another for y. However, obser- vations of brain activity have shown that this idea that dif- ferent parts of the brain work independently to perform a given function—the modular paradigm—is inaccurate. The story we frequently hear that the amygdala is the emotion center and the prefrontal cor tex performs executive functions unfairly depicts the brain almost as a collection of machine par ts. It may have some usefulness as a metaphor for how different types of brain function might interrelate, but it presents a ver y limited mechanical view of the brain—which misses the dynamic quality of brain activity and is not good sci- ence education. A metaphor that’s more prevalent among neurosci- entists today is the network view of the brain: “dynamic interconnected sets of systems (subsystems, and neural nodes) that work together to carry out certain kinds of activity,” in Amishi Jha’s words. The networks consist of relationships between an array of brain regions formed through repeated communi- cation among the par ts as we navigate through life. Three large-scale brain networks are talked about in the liter- ature today as they relate to meditation: NETWORKS VS. MACHINE PARTS HOW IT WORKS can’t common sense prevail? Do you really need brain imaging to tell you that if you stop and smell the roses, you may suffer less? Brain imaging results are loosely coupled to individ- uals’ actual experience. They can’t be used as a promise for what outcomes will result from practice. My 44 years of exposure to meditation teachings and practices has been essential to my understanding of myself, the ways I connect with others and engage in research. And that didn’t require any scientific data. Barry Boyce: We commonly hear that “mindfulness changes the brain.” Don’t lots of things change the brain, since neurons that “fire together, wire together”? Saron: That’s the fundamental law of neuroplasticity: Repeated activity makes it easy for the same activity to happen again. You could say the brain only works by changing. So if you repeatedly do something crappy, you get better at that, too! Jha: If you keep ruminating about your worst experience, your brain will be very efficient at calling to mind that episode. Throughout the history of neuroscience, we’ve known brains alter and transform. The seminal studies of brain damage tell us the brain changes when you destroy parts of it through stroke or injury. These patients recover in some cases, meaning reorganization enables brain function to adapt in a better direction. What’s novel and innovative about brain training in general—and in particular for us, mindfulness medita- tion—is that beneficial changes don’t always have to be in response to some insult or injury. You may actually be able to engage in training to help opti- mize certain abilities. → choose to place in working memory (what we need to hold in mind to stay on task), and problem solving. When we say we’re “ thinking hard” about something, there is major involvement from this network. DEFAULT MODE NETWORK (DMN) Perhaps the trickiest of the net- works to describe and understand, the DMN is often talked about as what the brain “defaults” to when it doesn’t have a task at hand. It processes self-monitoring, autobiographical information, and social cognition (roughly speaking, determining rela- tions with others). Spontaneous mind wandering and self-talk are associated with the DMN. The fact that the DMN includes internal dialogue and mind wandering has caused it to be described as both a font of creativity and the locus of problematic rumi- nation. SALIENCE NETWORK (SN) The SN has been likened to an air traffic controller. Our nervous sys- tem is bombarded with a massive volume of sensory inputs. The SN fil- ters and sor ts the input, operating at two levels. The first, described as “ fast, automatic, bottom-up,” pro- cesses features of our environment we’ve learned or instinctively know are important (i.e., salient). For example, quickly noticing ice on a sidewalk that might cause us to fall down. At the second level, the salience network allows us to focus our attention in order to achieve a goal. CENTRAL- EXECUTIVE NETWORK (CEN) The CEN’s role has to do with high- er-order cognition and attentional control. It’s what’s at work when we make decisions about focusing and sustaining attention, what we June 2018 mindful 53