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, 3 (9), e3083

"Thinking About Not-Thinking": Neural Correlates of Conceptual Processing During Zen Meditation


"Thinking About Not-Thinking": Neural Correlates of Conceptual Processing During Zen Meditation

Giuseppe Pagnoni et al. PLoS One.


Recent neuroimaging studies have identified a set of brain regions that are metabolically active during wakeful rest and consistently deactivate in a variety the performance of demanding tasks. This "default network" has been functionally linked to the stream of thoughts occurring automatically in the absence of goal-directed activity and which constitutes an aspect of mental behavior specifically addressed by many meditative practices. Zen meditation, in particular, is traditionally associated with a mental state of full awareness but reduced conceptual content, to be attained via a disciplined regulation of attention and bodily posture. Using fMRI and a simplified meditative condition interspersed with a lexical decision task, we investigated the neural correlates of conceptual processing during meditation in regular Zen practitioners and matched control subjects. While behavioral performance did not differ between groups, Zen practitioners displayed a reduced duration of the neural response linked to conceptual processing in regions of the default network, suggesting that meditative training may foster the ability to control the automatic cascade of semantic associations triggered by a stimulus and, by extension, to voluntarily regulate the flow of spontaneous mentation.

Conflict of interest statement

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Figure 1
Figure 1. Activated clusters for the contrast words-nonwords on the pooled data (CTRL+MEDT).
The t-map is thresholded at p<0.001, k>27 voxels (α<0.05).
Figure 2
Figure 2. ROI-based averages of the Gamma model beta coefficients for words (“wo”) and nonwords (“nw”) in controls (CTRL) and meditators (MEDT).
Abbreviations for ROI names are the same as in Table 2, where the index 1 and 2 for clusters with the same anatomical label follows the order in the table.
Figure 3
Figure 3. Estimates of the BOLD response associated with semantic processing in the ROI set, obtained by fitting a spline basis set model for the hemodynamic function and subtracting the average response to nonwords (“nw”) from the average response to words (“wo”) in meditators and controls.
The Gamma function model for a standard hemodynamic response is plotted as a black dotted line for reference.
Figure 4
Figure 4. Difference between controls and meditators (CTRL-MEDT) in the estimated profile of the BOLD response related to conceptual activity.
Error bars represent standard errors and a reference Gamma function model for the BOLD response to a single brief stimulus is plotted as a black line for reference.

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