Our central research questions:
1. Does mindfulness training use body and breath focused attention to modulate brain dynamics to subtly regulate how neurons fire together in somatosensory and motor areas in the brain?
Our 2011 publication (Kerr et al, Brain Res Bull 2011) showed mindfulness training enhanced attentional modulation of the alpha rhythm localized to the handmap in primary somatosensory cortex. In response to a changing cue, mindfulness-trained subjects were able to modulate alpha faster and to a larger extent than controls as they demonstrated faster, more flexible ability to switch brain states in SI, depending on the context.
2. Does Tai Chi use body focused attention to modulate brain dynamics to subtly regulate how neurons fire together in somatosenory and motor areas in the brain.
Our 2007 publication (Kerr et al, Exp Brain Res 2007 ) showing Tai Chi practitioners were better than age-matched controls in subtle touch processing (discriminating the orientation of narrow gratings applied to the finger, in a manner analogous to an “eye test”) gives behavioral evidence that Tai Chi training is associated with enhanced dynamics in early somatosensory cortical (and/or subcortical) areas
Our central clinical questions:
1. In the sensorimotor domain: do mindfulness and Tai Chi elicit focused attentional modulation of rhythmic synchrony in somatosensory and motor neurons to
- modulate unpleasant, painful body sensations (via enhanced regulation of primary somatosensory cortex 8-13 Hz alpha rhythm and the 14-29 Hz beta rhythm)?
- help to sculpt high-precision movement and stable posture (via enhanced attentional regulation of beta rhythm coherence between motor cortex and target muscles)?
2. In the cognitive domain, does intensive training of low-level sensory attention (e.g., breath and body awareness) employed in mindfulness meditation translate broadly to
- achieve improved cognitive regulation (e.g., improved rumination) relevant to mindfulness’ role in preventing depression relapse?
- Our hypothesis is that mindfulness’ enhanced control over sensory gain (achieved through low-level sensory attention) broadens to enhance regulation of “higher” internal cognitive-memory stimuli including rumination. According to this theory, low-level sensory attentional practice regulating cortical rhythms (especially the alpha rhythm) may play a role in preventing depression relapse (via enhanced regulation of sensory-cortical alpha rhythm across a broad range of sensory-attention and memory tasks)?
Extending our embodied-attention approach to other questions
Does mindfulness elicit changes in IBS patients resting functional brain connectivity between areas that encode bodily pain and visceral sensation areas and areas that carry out emotion-processing areas in the brain?
Do meditators show an enhanced ability to enter a rubber-hand illusion?
Additional research projects in the lab:
- Does Tai Chi enhance neuronal synchrony?
Work by our group and others suggest Tai Chi, with its intensive body-focused attention during slow movement exercise, may bring about changes at the cortical and subcortical level. We continue to develop investigations in this area, along with our collaborator, Dr. Ge Wu (University of Vermont).
- Can targeted mindfulness practice grounded in body-focused attention help medical students and physicians deal with stress?
We are currently developing brief mindfulness-wellness interventions for medical students and physicians. A key aspect of these interventions is that they try to achieve rapid uptake at low doses by developing body-focused attention across multiple points of focus and multiple modalities including sitting and walking meditation.
- Can collaboration with humanist and contemplative scholars help to generate novel scientific hypotheses?
Our lab investigates novel scientific hypotheses generated by millennia of contemplative thought and practice. For example, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, a landmark ancient text from the Buddhist Pali Canon, hypothesizes that a contemplative process for training happiness and stability of mind begins with body-focused awareness, setting out a theoretical construct that is not seen in the western psychological literature. Other examples of contemplative hypotheses relevant to meditation and tai chi can be seen in recent Daoist scholarship, as in Professor Hal Roth’s formulation of Cheng (alignment) in ancient Daoist text
- How does body-focused attention modulate cortical synchrony?
For our studies of the basic science of neuronal synchrony during body-focused attention, we have used Magnetoencephalography (MEG) to investigate localized changes in cortical synchrony when subjects are cued to attend to a specific body area. Our group, working closely with Dr. Stephanie Jones (Brown Neuroscience), was the first to discover how a cue to attend to the body modulates alpha rhythm power in a highly localized measure in the “body map.” We are currently extending this work to investigate attentional modulation of long-distance synchronies between prefrontal and sensory cortex.