Lyon neuroscientists auscultate meditation

A Lyon team of scientists from Inserm is carrying out an experiment devoted to the effects of meditation on the brain, based on a protocol of unprecedented proportions. Named Longimed, a simplification of “longitudinal evolution of perception and cognition during a meditation retreat”, this neuroscientific study aims to identify the behavioral and cerebral changes occurring during the intensive practice of meditation, more precisely in a maximum phase of meditative experience.

The researchers accumulated data from a cohort of volunteers, recruited for their extensive practice of meditation, placed in full retreat for an uninterrupted ten-day period. In all, 54 people divided into several groups participated in the experience. Three retreats took place between October 2020 and March 2021, in a reception center in Poizat, near Nantua (Ain). At the end of a schedule disrupted by the episodes of sanitary confinement, the last measurements were carried out in June, in the laboratory of the neuroscience research center based in the park of the Le Vinatier hospital, in Bron (Rhône) . The team, made up of around ten researchers and assistants, is now giving itself one year to deliver the full results of the study funded by the European Research Council.

Intensive exercise

“Such an experimental format was lacking in the scientific literature. The duration of the retreats that we have organized allows us to go further in the knowledge of the springs of meditation on the perceptual, cognitive and affective patterns of the brain ”, explains Antoine Lutz, 48, from the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center. Author of a thesis defended in 2002 at the Pitié-Salpêtrière (AP-HP) and researcher for ten years at the University of Wisconsin, the research director is part of the scientific lineage that began in 1983 with the founding meeting between the neurobiologist Francisco Varela and the Dalai Lama. Antoine Lutz also participated in the first studies in brain imaging on meditations carried out with experienced meditators, as in 2015 with the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard.

Certain waves and areas of the brain are directly affected by the exercise of meditation, as if the plasticity of the brain benefits from mental exercise

“This field of study was not taken seriously in its early days. I was told that I was leaving science! For twenty years, cognitive neuroscience has been expanding rapidly and the subject of meditation has taught us a lot of information on how the brain works ”, explains Antoine Lutz. Previous studies have shown that there are specific neurocomputational principles of how the brain works during intense meditative practices. Certain waves and areas of the brain are directly affected by the intensive exercise of meditation, as if the plasticity of the brain benefits from the mental exercise which consists of welcoming thoughts and sensations in stillness and silence. By observing high doses of meditation, the Inserm team seeks to identify behavioral and neurophysiological markers of the effect of so-called “mindfulness” situations. The Lyon study wants to confirm, model and test these principles, in order to try to establish a complete neurocognitive theory of meditation.

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Lyon neuroscientists auscultate meditation