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Meditation and brain scans: for once I like a neuroscience story

Parallel posts on this story on Medical News Today and PsyPost, both (a bit) rewritten from a press release from Yale, I guess (I can’t find the original, but I can find lots of other postings in almost the same words from other news outlets):

For once, this looks like a bit of brain scan research which does help to explain what’s going on, in matching up brain activity with what we know phenomenologically about meditation states, rather than saying ‘some bit of the brain or other lights up, so that’s real proof that it happens’.
Could be, of course, that I just like to see sensible positive stuff about meditation, and the results fit with my own understandings, so I’m a bit prejudiced.

A new brain imaging study led by researchers at Yale University shows how people who regularly practise meditation are able to switch off areas of the brain linked to daydreaming, anxiety, schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders. The brains of experienced meditators appear to show less activity in an area known as the “default mode network”, which is linked to largely self-centred thinking. The researchers suggest through monitoring and suppressing or “tuning out” the “me” thoughts, meditators develop a new default mode, which is more present-centred.

Still, I can’t resist some moans. Here’s  evidence of how these stories closely paraphrase (as journalism, that’s OK; in academically assessed work, this kind of thing counts as plagiarism) and seldom say any more than the original press release. Poor editing, too, with grammatical errors introduced into the MNT version, and not corrected in the PsyPost quote (OK, sticking with a verbatim quote even when it isn’t quite syntactically correct is permissible, but MNT’s version is just a mess*)

On Medical News Today:  “Meditation can help deal with a variety of health problems, from quitting smoking, to coping with cancer, and even prevention psoriasis, one of the researchers said in a statement.”

On PsyPost: “Meditation has been shown to help in variety of health problems, such as helping people quit smoking, cope with cancer, and even prevent psoriasis,” Brewer said.

More important than the grammar is the ‘cure for cancer’ hint, which could just be there to help with the newsworthiness. I know the researcher (Judson Brewer, director of the clinic – see details below) actually says ‘cope with cancer’, which could be fair enough, but can’t you just see this ending up as a headline which says “Meditation Cures Cancer, Psoriasis and Smoking, and Can Cure the ‘Me, Me, Me generation’, Too’?  Guess which newspaper I’m thinking of – and I deny that this is a mendacious smear driven by my hatred of the media.†

Also, the PsyPost posting is illustrated with one of those side-view-of-a-brain-with-two-coloured-blobs-on images which is no use to anyone, but is supposed to make it look like proper science.
Interesting story though, so thanks, MNT and PsyPost.

Here’s the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic’s (the source of the research) homepage, which has access to some interesting-looking stuff: magazine articles and a video of a lecture (in a box on lower right):

The full reference is on the clinic’s ‘publications’ page:

Brewer, J. A., P. D. Worhunsky, J. R. Gray, YY Tang, J. Weber, H. Kober. (2011) “Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (in press).

*And yes, I know any sensible, non-anal person wouldn’t care about this.



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