Judson Brewer Addresses Neurofeedback, Mindfulness, and Neuro-phenomenology: Reports from the International Society for Neurofeedback and Research

brewer%20and%20brain%20images%20composite - Judson Brewer Addresses Neurofeedback, Mindfulness, and Neuro-phenomenology: Reports from the International Society for Neurofeedback and Research
Judson Brewer and fMRI Images of Posterior Cingulate Cortex Activation


School of Mind-Body Medicine Chair Donald Moss has been attending the ISNR meeting in Dallas this week, where he taught (with Dr. Fred Shaffer) a competency course in heart rate variability biofeedback and a workshop on ethics and professional standards in Neurofeedback.  Dr. Moss will report in on relevant scientific programs at ISNR.

On Saturday September 21, Dr. Judson Brewer delivered a keynote address:  he discussed the human tendency to “get in one’s own way,” mindfulness practices as a tool for eliminating destructive thinking, the application of mindfulness for addictions treatment, and the use of neuroimaging and neurophenomenology to study correlates of mindfulness and wandering thoughts.

Judson Brewer is an assistant professor at Yale in psychiatry and a contemplative scientist studying the effects of meditation on the brain. He and his colleagues believe they have found a way to use FMRI to give meditators real time feedback on their mindfulness practice. This feedback has led to increased efficacy and efficiency in mindfulness practice. Since making these discoveries, Brewer has joined the Contemplative Development Mapping Project in hopes of creating a common language between meditation traditions to more easily discern progress in meditation practice. 

Brewer opened his keynote by discussing how human beings “get in their own way.”  His example was the American hurdler Lolo Jones, who was favored to win gold at the Beijing Olympics. She was in the lead, at the 9th of 10 hurdles, and suddenly got in her own way, became caught up in her own thinking:

“I was just in an amazing rhythm … and then I knew at one point I was winning the race. It wasn’t like, Oh, I’m winning the Olympic gold medal. It just seemed like another race. And then there was a point after that where … I was telling myself to make sure my legs were snapping out. So I over-tried. That’s when I hit the hurdle.”

Brewer calls this self-referential thinking, a surprisingly common element in many moments when human beings cause their own defeat. Current research shows that human beings experience about 50% of the time, unless they specifically cultivate mindfulness.  Brewer is also an addictionologist, and he applied this framework to smoking cessation and to the cravings that drive addictions. He describes addicts as getting caught up either thinking with the craving or struggling against it.  Brewer developed a program of mindfulness, training addicts to be present in the moment, neither joining with the cravings nor fighting them.  They learned to accept and observe the cravings without judgment, and also without feeling a need to enact them.  The participants in this mindfulness program succeeded in stopping their tobacco use at twice the rate of most studies.  Based on this research Brewer developed a smart phone app, Craving to Quit, delivering a 21 day program for smoking cessation.

Brewer next described his use of neuro-imaging, paired with neurophenomenology, to understand the neural basis for maladaptive or self-referential thinking – the kind of thinking that led Lolo Jones to stumble and so many addicts to relapse.  Brewer studied both novice and experienced meditators and identified key brain structures that discriminate when the meditators are fully mindfully present, and when they are distracted and engage in self-referential thinking.

Brewer’s team initially used an fMRI and focused on the Default Mode Network (DMN), a network of brain areas that are active when the individual is not focused on the outside world. A study by Whitfield Gabrieli (2011) had identified the DMN as the neural support for wandering mind.  Brewer found that experienced meditators turn off the DMN.  Ultimately, Brewer focused on one brain structure in the DMN – the posterior cingulated cortex – and provided the meditators with displays of the fMRI showing their posterior cingulated cortex (PCC) activating or suppressing.  They were able initially to identify their distractions and activated thought process when the PCC lit up.  Their neurophenomenological descriptions of their experiencing during the neuro-imaging led to a clearer understanding of the brain processes in mindfulness or wandering minds. In turn meditators were able on demand to switch off the activity in the PCC, enhancing their mindfulness.

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