This past friday, I attended my first meditation session at my new yoga school. I love this school and hope – someday – to make it through the full Ashtanga series and other sequences the instructors do. In the meantime, I found myself sitting on my folded up blanket, letting my mind wander, listening to my breath and just trying to enjoy the moment.
What a wonderful experience it was … it felt great! … I think I my have even given my brain a rest. A simple kindness to repay it for all it has done for me!
Although I did not know what I was supposed to be “doing” during meditation, the experience itself has me hooked and fascinated with a new research article, “Genetic control over the resting brain” [doi: 10.1073/pnas.0909969107] by David Glahn and colleages.
Reading this paper, I learned that my brain “at rest” is really very active with neural activity in a series of interconnected circuits known as the default network. Moreover, the research team finds that many of these interconnected circuits fire together in a way that is significantly influenced by genetic factors (overall heritability of about 0.42). By analyzing the resting state (lay in the MRI and let your mind wander) patterns of activity in 333 folks from extended pedigrees, the team shows that certain interconnections (neural activity between 2 or more regions) within the default network are more highly correlated in people who are more related to each other. For example, the left parahippocampal region was genetically correlated with many of the other brain areas in the default network.
Of course, these genetic effects on resting state connectivity are far from determinative, and the authors noted that some interconnections within the default network were more sensitive to environmental factors – such as functional connectivity between right temporal-parietal & posterior cingulate/precuneus & medial prefronal cortex.
Wow, so my resting state activity must – at some level – as a partial product of my genome – be rather unique and special. It certainly felt that way as my mind wandered freely during meditation class. The authors point out that their heritability study lays more groundwork for follow-up gene hunting expeditions to isolate specific genetic variants. This will be very exciting!
Some other items from their paper that I’ll be pondering in my next meditation class are the facts that these default neural networks are already present in the infant brain! and in our non-human primate cousins (even when they are not conscious)! Whoa! These genetics & resting-state brain studies will really push our sense of what it means to be human, to be unique, to be interconnected by a common (genetic) thread from generation to generation over vast spatial and temporal distances (is this karma of sorts?).
I suppose yogis & other practitioners of meditation might be bemused at this recent avenue of “cutting edge” scientific inquiry – I mean – duh?! of course, it makes sense that by remaining calm and sitting quietly that we would discover ourselves.