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This article is part of the Research Topic Approaches and assumptions in human neuroscience

Hypothesis & Theory ARTICLE

Front. Hum. Neurosci., 10 February 2011 | http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2011.00017

Mental training as a tool in the neuroscientific study of brain and cognitive plasticity

  • 1 Brain and Cognition Unit, Department of Psychology, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • 2 Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, USA
  • 3 Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, USA
  • 4 Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, USA

Although the adult brain was once seen as a rather static organ, it is now clear that the organization of brain circuitry is constantly changing as a function of experience or learning. Yet, research also shows that learning is often specific to the trained stimuli and task, and does not improve performance on novel tasks, even very similar ones. This perspective examines the idea that systematic mental training, as cultivated by meditation, can induce learning that is not stimulus or task specific, but process specific. Many meditation practices are explicitly designed to enhance specific, well-defined core cognitive processes. We will argue that this focus on enhancing core cognitive processes, as well as several general characteristics of meditation regimens, may specifically foster process-specific learning. To this end, we first define meditation and discuss key findings from recent neuroimaging studies of meditation. We then identify several characteristics of specific meditation training regimes that may determine process-specific learning. These characteristics include ongoing variability in stimulus input, the meta-cognitive nature of the processes trained, task difficulty, the focus on maintaining an optimal level of arousal, and the duration of training. Lastly, we discuss the methodological challenges that researchers face when attempting to control or characterize the multiple factors that may underlie meditation training effects.

Keywords: plasticity, training, mental training, meditation, neuroimaging, cognition, brain

Citation: Slagter HA, Davidson RJ and Lutz A (2011) Mental training as a tool in the neuroscientific study of brain and cognitive plasticity. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 5:17. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2011.00017

Received: 07 July 2010; Accepted: 26 January 2011;
Published online: 10 February 2011.

Edited by:

Michael X. Cohen, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands

Reviewed by:

Michael Posner, University of Oregon, USA
Tonya L. Jacobs, University of California, Davis, USA

Copyright: © 2011 Slagter, Davidson and Lutz. This is an open-access article subject to an exclusive license agreement between the authors and Frontiers Media SA, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original authors and source are credited.

*Correspondence: Heleen A. Slagter, Department of Psychology, University of Amsterdam, Roeterstraat 15, 1018 WB Amsterdam, Netherlands. e-mail: h.a.slagter@uva.nl