Using computational and neuroimaging techniques, Montague studies the neurobiology of human social cognition and decision-making. He and his students recruited 26 Buddhist meditators and 40 control subjects for comparison and looked at their brain processes using functional MRI (fMRI) while the subjects played the "ultimatum game," in which the first player propose how to divide a sum of money and the second can accept or reject the proposal.
The researchers hypothesized that "successful regulation of negative emotional reactions would lead to increased acceptance rates of unfair offers" by the meditators. The behavioral results confirmed the hypothesis.
But the neuroimaging results showed that Buddhist meditators engaged different parts of the brain than expected. Kirk, Downar, and Montague explained that "The anterior insula has previously been linked to the emotion of disgust, and plays a key role in marking social norm violations, rejection, betrayal, and mistrust. In previous studies of the ultimatum game, anterior insula activity was higher for unfair offers, and the strength of its activity predicted the likelihood of an offer being rejected. In the present study, this was true for controls. However, in meditators, the anterior insula showed no significant activation for unfair offers, and there was no significant relationship between anterior insula activity and offer rejection. Hence, meditators were able to uncouple the negative emotional response to an unfair offer, presumably by attending to internal bodily states (interoception) reflected by activity in the posterior insula."
The researchers conclude, "Our results suggest that the lower-level interoceptive representation of the posterior insula is recruited based on individual trait levels in mindfulness. When assessing unfair offers, meditators seem to activate an almost entirely different network of brain areas than do normal controls. Controls draw upon areas involved
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