We breathe in and we breathe out roughly 15 times per minute. Each day contains more than 20,000 breaths. Most escape our notice, but when we pay attention, directing our thoughts inward as in a state of meditation, we use particular networks in our brain that fascinate many neuroscientists and psychologists.
People trained in meditation techniques, past research suggests, are more adept at some cognitive tasks than others. Now, some neuroscientists believe a meditative mental state may also help people make more accurate judgments about their own abilities.
“Decisions often bear upon other decisions,” writes Mariano Sigman and colleagues in a recent PNAS Early Edition paper. “Metadecisions” typically depend upon how sure we are that we’re likely to be correct. “Confidence judgements can be severely distorted: People may lack confidence when responding correctly and reciprocally, be very confident of incorrect responses.”
The team of neuroscientists from Argentina, Scotland, and France wanted to know how functional brain networks–regions known to work together in stable mental states–varied when making objective and subjective decisions in a variety of mental states: resting, alert, and meditative.
Using a functional MRI machine, they measured subject’s blood flow (correlated with neural activity) to regions of the brain in different states of attention. They then compared the functional connectivity measured in these different states with connectivity during objective and subjective decision making, as measured by a simple perceptual task.
The more accurate a subject’s performance when making objective decisions, reports Sigman and colleagues, the greater level of connectivity among their brain networks in all states of attention. When asked about their confidence in their decisions (making a subjective judgement), the patterns were more complex. Connectivity and performance accuracy seemed linked only when subjects were in an inwardly focused “interoceptive” state.
Could meditation training, then, help people be more accurate in their subjective judgements? The authors are careful to note the limits of their data. The analyses show only correlational and nondirectional relationships between brain region connectivity and success in decision making.
However, if, as the authors hypothesize, the brain circuitry of interoception and metacognition overlap, interoception or mindfulness training may be a path to improve metacognitive abilities. Psychiatric patients who feel disconnected from themselves, either physically or mentally, may also benefit from interoception.
The authors hope their work will help link what they call the “fertile but largely disconnected literature of metacognitive ability and interoception.”