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This article is part of the Research Topic Neural Effects of Mindfulness/Contemplative Training


Front. Hum. Neurosci., 13 February 2013 | http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00012

Mindfulness starts with the body: somatosensory attention and top-down modulation of cortical alpha rhythms in mindfulness meditation

  • 1Department of Family Medicine, Brown University, Providence, RI, USA
  • 2Neurosciences Program, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA, USA
  • 3Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA
  • 4Athinoula A. Martinos Center For Biomedical Imaging, Mass General Hospital, Charlestown, MA, USA
  • 5Department of Neuroscience, Brown University, Providence, RI, USA

Using a common set of mindfulness exercises, mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) have been shown to reduce distress in chronic pain and decrease risk of depression relapse. These standardized mindfulness (ST-Mindfulness) practices predominantly require attending to breath and body sensations. Here, we offer a novel view of ST-Mindfulness's somatic focus as a form of training for optimizing attentional modulation of 7–14 Hz alpha rhythms that play a key role in filtering inputs to primary sensory neocortex and organizing the flow of sensory information in the brain. In support of the framework, we describe our previous finding that ST-Mindfulness enhanced attentional regulation of alpha in primary somatosensory cortex (SI). The framework allows us to make several predictions. In chronic pain, we predict somatic attention in ST-Mindfulness “de-biases” alpha in SI, freeing up pain-focused attentional resources. In depression relapse, we predict ST-Mindfulness's somatic attention competes with internally focused rumination, as internally focused cognitive processes (including working memory) rely on alpha filtering of sensory input. Our computational model predicts ST-Mindfulness enhances top-down modulation of alpha by facilitating precise alterations in timing and efficacy of SI thalamocortical inputs. We conclude by considering how the framework aligns with Buddhist teachings that mindfulness starts with “mindfulness of the body.” Translating this theory into neurophysiology, we hypothesize that with its somatic focus, mindfulness' top-down alpha rhythm modulation in SI enhances gain control which, in turn, sensitizes practitioners to better detect and regulate when the mind wanders from its somatic focus. This enhanced regulation of somatic mind-wandering may be an important early stage of mindfulness training that leads to enhanced cognitive regulation and metacognition.

Keywords: alpha rhythm, attention, chronic pain, depression relapse, mindfulness meditation, somatosensory cortex, thalamocortical loop

Citation: Kerr CE, Sacchet MD, Lazar SW, Moore CI and Jones SR (2013) Mindfulness starts with the body: somatosensory attention and top-down modulation of cortical alpha rhythms in mindfulness meditation. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 7:12. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00012

Received: 11 March 2012; Accepted: 11 January 2013;
Published online: 13 February 2013.

Edited by:

Amishi P. Jha, University of Miami, USA

Reviewed by:

Stephen Whitmarsh, Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands
Philippe Goldin, Stanford University, USA

Copyright © 2013 Kerr, Sacchet, Lazar, Moore and Jones. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited and subject to any copyright notices concerning any third-party graphics etc.

*Correspondence: Catherine E. Kerr, Department of Family Medicine, Alpert School of Medicine, Brown University, 222 Richmond St, Providence, RI 02903, USA. e-mail: catherine_kerr@brown.edu