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Body awareness, voluntary physiological regulation, and their modulation by contemplative training


Bornemann,  Boris
Department Social Neuroscience, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Bornemann, B. (2017). Body awareness, voluntary physiological regulation, and their modulation by contemplative training. PhD Thesis, Humboldt University Berlin.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-002D-4BF4-7
Abstract Relationships between mental and bodily processes are increasingly recognized in psychology, neuroscience, and medicine, and inform treatment strategies for mental and physical disorders. In this dissertation, I investigate interactions between mental and bodily processes, specifically by studying the influence of contemplative mental training (CMT) on interoception (inner body sensing) and physiological regulation. In a large-scale mental training study (n = 332, training durations 3-9 months), the ReSource Project, I find that CMT increases interoceptive accuracy in the training cohorts but not in a retest control cohort. These increases in interoceptive accuracy co-occur with and predict improvements in emotional awareness. In line with these objective data on interoception, participants self- report training-related benefits on multiple dimensions of body awareness. The strongest changes occur in the ability to sustain attention to body sensations and the use of this ability to identify and regulate emotions. I also introduce a novel biofeedback task that measures the ability to voluntarily upregulate high frequency heart rate variability (HF-HRV), indicative of voluntary parasympathetic control. Cross-sectional data of the ReSource Project show that individual differences in voluntary parasympathetic control are related to polymorphisms of the oxytocin receptor gene rs53576 and correlated to individual differences in altruistically motivated behavior. Furthermore, CMT improves various aspects of voluntary HF-HRV regulation, with modulation of these improvements by rs53576 genotype. An additional investigation in cross-sectional data shows that subjective retrospective reports of an emotionally arousing experience partially mirror the objectively measured bodily arousal during the actual experience. Individual differences in this mind-body coherence are related to individual differences in interoceptive accuracy. Together, these studies highlight the tight interplay between physiological and mental processes. They show how familiarity with mind-body processes, acquired through CMT, improves inner body sensing and voluntary physiological regulation. This synopsis summarizes and discusses the empirical works in context, including their scientific, philosophical, and societal implications.