Meditation makes people more rational decision-makers

Elizabeth Weise: Meditation, the ancient practice of mindfulness employed by all major religions, can actually reprogram the brain to be more rational and less emotional, researchers in Canada and the United States say.

The researchers looked at a classic psychological test called the Ultimatum Game. In this test, researchers propose this scenario: A friend or relative has won some sum of money and then offers the test subject a small portion of it – will they accept the money?

Surprisingly, despite the fact that it’s a windfall, multiple tests over 30 years show that only about a quarter of people say yes. The rest reply that it’s not fair because the person offering the money has lots and that they should get more.

People who practice Buddhist meditation behaved differently. Researchers found in their test that more than 50% of Buddhist meditators took the rational offer of free money, rather than rejecting it because it felt unfair.

The researcher involved 40 control subjects and 26 expert meditators. These were not Buddhist monks or nuns Read the rest of this article…

but simply people who practiced frequent Buddhist meditation “while maintaining a secular life incorporating a career, family, and friends.” according to the paper.

The study is in this month’s edition of the journal Frontiers in Decision Neuroscience.

When the researchers did MRI imaging of the Buddhist meditators brains, they found that they used different areas of their brain than other people when confronted with what could be construed as an ‘unfair’ choice, which allowed them to make decisions based more on facts and less on emotions.

Neuroimaging showed that Buddhist meditators engaged different parts of the brain than expected, the researchers found. Previous work showed that when people rejected the offer, there was activity in the anterior insula portion of their brains. This is linked to the emotion of disgust and plays a role in emotions related to violations of social norm violations, rejection, betrayal, and mistrust.

But meditators showed no significant activity for the anterior insula when offered a portion of the money. In fact they increased activity in the posterior insula, which has been linked to rational decision-making.

As the researchers note in their paper:

Siblings, schoolchildren, and CEOs have all been known to worry more about their competitors’ rewards than their own – with unhappy social consequences for everyone else. This study suggests that the trick may lie not in rational calculation, but in steering away from what-if scenarios, and concentrating on the interoceptive qualities that accompany any reward, no matter how small.

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