The cognitive and affective neurosciences of meditation

Antonino Raffone


Meditation can be conceptualized as a family of practices regulating cognition and emotion, in which mental and related somatic events are influenced by a specific directing of attention and awareness. As promulgated in several contemplative traditions, mental training based on meditation leads to enhanced cognitive and emotional regulation, and to mental states characterized by reduced negative emotions and motives, and enhanced positive features and attitudes such as serenity, joy, acceptance, and compassion.

More recently many scientific and clinical studies have provided evidence of the beneficial effects of meditation on cognition, emotion, and health. Such studies have developed considerably over recent years as a result of several factors, including the availability of new research techniques, such as neuroimaging. The involvement in meditation research of leading laboratories in cognitive and affective neuroscience, such as the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience led by Richard Davidson in Wisconsin, has also played an important role. Also, the interest of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in science and its dialogue with Buddhism has stimulated research on meditation and related aspects of contemplative practice. Other influential authors, such as Daniel Goleman, who has co-authored books with the Dalai Lama on negative (Goleman and Dalai Lama 2003) and wholesome emotions, have contributed to the diffusion of interest in meditation and contemplative practices in the West. The mindfulness-based protocols resulting from the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn (e.g., Kabat-Zinn 1990, 2003) have led to a number of clinical, psychological, and neuroscientific studies on meditation practices in the context of such protocols.

The training of attention is a central feature of different meditation methods (Davidson and Goleman 1977). Indeed, several studies have reported the development of more efficient attentional processes with meditation practice, including increased attentional control and sustained attention (e.g., Slagter et al. 2007; van den Hurk et al. 2010 for a review see Lutz et al. 2008a). More generally, a number of recent behavioral, electroencephalographic (EEG), and neuroimaging studies have revealed the importance of investigating states and traits related to meditation to achieve an increased understanding of cognitive and affective plasticity (and related neuroplasticity), attention, and awareness (Cahn and Polich 2006; Lutz et al. 2008a; Raffone and Srinivasan 2010). Clinical applications are also increasingly recognized (Cahn and Polich 2006; Hofmann et al. 2010; van Aalderen et al. 2012).

In this chapter I will provide an overview of the neural correlates of meditation, and will then focus on neuroplasticity as related to meditation-based mental training. Attention will be given to the two main facets of meditation, focused attention (related to “concentration”) and open monitoring (related to “mindfulness”), which are highlighted in scientific research, with related neuroscientific findings.

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