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Meditation skills of Buddhist monks yield clues to brain's regulation of attention

In an unusual but fruitful collaboration between Tibetan Buddhist monks and neuroscientists, researchers have uncovered clues to how mental states--and their underlying neural mechanisms--can impact conscious visual experience. In their study, reported in the June 7 issue of Current Biology, the researchers found evidence that the skills developed by Tibetan Buddhist monks in their practice of a certain type of meditation can strongly influence their experience of a phenomenon, termed "perceptual rivalry," that deals with attention and consciousness.

The work is reported by Olivia Carter and Jack Pettigrew of the University of Queensland, Australia, and colleagues at the University of Queensland and the University of California, Berkeley.

Perceptual rivalry arises normally when two different images are presented to each eye, and it is manifested as a fluctuation--typically, over the course of seconds--in the "dominant" image that is consciously perceived. The neural events underlying perceptual rivalry are not well understood but are thought to involve brain mechanisms that regulate attention and conscious awareness.

Some previous work had suggested that skilled meditation can alter certain aspects of the brain's neural activity, though the significance of such changes in terms of actually understanding brain function remains unclear.

To gain insight into how visual perception is regulated within the brain, researchers in the new study chose to investigate the extent to which certain types of trained meditative practice can influence the conscious experience of visual perceptual rivalry.

With the support of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, 76 Tibetan Buddhist monks participated in the study, which was carried out at or near their mountain retreats in the Himalaya, Zanskar, and Ladakhi Ranges of India. The monks possessed meditative training ranging from 5 to 54 years; among the group were three "retreatist" meditators, each wit
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Contact: Heidi Hardman
hhardman@cell.com
1-617-397-2879
Cell Press
6-Jun-2005


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