Zen and the art of decision making: fMRI revelations

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  • Published: May 1, 2011
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: MRI Spectroscopy
thumbnail image: Zen and the art of decision making: fMRI revelations

Different thinking

Buddhists are different from other people, at least when they meditate on an important decision. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows that specific regions of the meditating brain become active when confronted with an ethical decision but that these are different from the brain regions apparently active in people of a less Zen disposition attempting to make the same decision.

Human decision making does not appear to be logical or rational. If a friend or relative wins a few hundred pounds on the lottery and offers you a few pounds to help them celebrate, logically you might think people would accept the windfall, with a "sure, why not?". But, Read Montague, professor and director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and professor of physics at Virginia Tech, points out that research carried out since the 1980s would suggest that only a quarter of people would accept the cash, whereas the others would see the division of the windfall as unfair. In fact, people will turn down any reward rather than accept an 'unfair' share.

If you are a Buddhist meditator, however, your response to the offer of the cash is almost guaranteed to be very different. Fair or otherwise, more than half will take what is offered, according to new research published with Montague's colleague Ulrich Kirk and Jonathan Downar who are also at the University of Toronto. The team's fMRI study of decision making in meditators and others shows that the Buddhists use different areas of the brain to other people when confronted with seemingly unfair choices. This, the researchers suggest, allows such meditational people to make a more rational than emotional decision, presumably because meditation has somehow trained the brain to function differently and make better choices in certain situations.


Imaging and computation

The team used computational and neuroimaging techniques with 26 Buddhist meditators and 40 control subjects to compare brain activity using fMRI while the subjects played the "ultimatum game," in which the first player proposes how to divide a sum of money and the second can accept or reject the proposal. The research "highlights the clinically and socially important possibility that sustained training in mindfulness meditation may impact distinct domains of human decision making," the researchers write. Of course, this hypothesis relies heavily on a direct correlation between fMRI results and the actual processes of thought taking place in the brains of the subjects.

The results showed that Buddhist meditators used different parts of the brain than expected. The anterior insula, previously associated with the emotion of disgust, and thought to play a key role in recognising violations of social norms, rejection, betrayal, and mistrust, was active in the controls but not in the meditators. The reverse was true for activity in the posterior insula.

"Our results suggest that the lower-level interoceptive representation of the posterior insula is recruited based on individual trait levels in mindfulness. When assessing unfair offers, meditators seem to activate an almost entirely different network of brain areas than do normal controls. Controls draw upon areas involved in theory of mind, prospection, episodic memory, and fictive error. In contrast, meditators instead draw upon areas involved in interoception and attention to the present moment. "This study suggests that the trick may lie not in rational calculation, but in steering away from what-if scenarios, and concentrating on the interoceptive qualities that accompany any reward, no matter how small."

SpectroscopyNOW asked Kirk about how well neural activity observed using fMRI correlates with the decision-making processes, he told us: "The neural activity in the brain regions we report represents the average activity in these particular regions across participants (meditators separately from controls) at the time of decision. In [our fMRI images] you can see the 'blocks' illustrating how the experiment progressed, i.e. offer period and decision-period. We have simply modelled the neural activity at the onset of the decision-period. Now, this does not exclude that something else is going on (both in a temporal and spatial dimension) in the brain, and this could refer to subthreshold processing."



The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

Buddhist meditators are different from other people, at least when they meditate on an important decision. Functional magnetic resonance spectroscopy (fMRI) shows that specific regions of the meditating brain become active when confronted with an ethical decision but that these are different from the brain regions apparently active in people of a less Zen disposition attempting to make the same decision.

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