Background: Mantra (prolonged repetitive verbal utterance) is one of the most universal mental practices in human culture. However, the underlying neuronal mechanisms that may explain its powerful emotional and cognitive impact are unknown. In order to try to isolate the effect of silent repetitive speech, which is used in most commonly practiced Mantra meditative practices, on brain activity, we studied the neuronal correlates of simple repetitive speech in nonmeditators - that is, silent repetitive speech devoid of the wider context and spiritual orientations of commonly practiced meditation practices.
Methods: We compared, using blood oxygenated level-dependent (BOLD) functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a simple task of covertly repeating a single word to resting state activity, in 23 subjects, none of which practiced meditation before.
Results: We demonstrate that the repetitive speech was sufficient to induce a widespread reduction in BOLD signal compared to resting baseline. The reduction was centered mainly on the default mode network, associated with intrinsic, self-related processes. Importantly, contrary to most cognitive tasks, where cortical-reduced activation in one set of networks is typically complemented by positive BOLD activity of similar magnitude in other cortical networks, the repetitive speech practice resulted in unidirectional negative activity without significant concomitant positive BOLD. A subsequent behavioral study showed a significant reduction in intrinsic thought processes during the repetitive speech condition compared to rest.
Conclusions: Our results are compatible with a global gating model that can exert a widespread induction of negative BOLD in the absence of a corresponding positive activation. The triggering of a global inhibition by the minimally demanding repetitive speech may account for the long-established psychological calming effect associated with commonly practiced Mantra-related meditative practices.
Keywords: Default mode network; fMRI; global inhibition; mantra; meditation.