by Stephani Sutherland, PhD
The so-called higher functions of our brains reside in the cerebral cortex, the domain of executive function. The term refers to our control over the flow of thoughts that run through our minds at any given time. Researchers have determined that executive function can be parsed out into specific workings. In a recent study, USC researchers examined how these components interact, and whether meditation practice influences them.
Three processes defined as components of executive function include mindfulness, self-control, and working memory. Brain areas thought to be responsible for these mental musings are the posterior medial frontal cortex (pMFC), which is thought to monitor the brain’s chatter, and the lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC), which acts to reign in aberrant activity when necessary.
For the study, published in Mindfulness in 2011, the researchers presented 28 subjects—all first-year medical students—with several online surveys to gauge these three processes. The participants also completed tests aimed at measuring mental health. While participants did not undertake any mindfulness practice as part of the study, the questionnaire assessed whether subjects employed such practices and then looked for any inter-relationship between meditation and the components of executive function.
From their analysis of the surveys, the researchers determined that the three elements of executive function operate for the most part independently, but with some overlap, indicating how complex this broad category of brain activity may be.
Interestingly, what did emerge from the surveys was that the medical students who meditated—about a quarter of the subjects, according to their own self-report—were less likely to use or abuse alcohol. That finding suggests that meditation can help protect against substance abuse in this highly stressed population.