Most individuals often make irrational decisions, particularly when it comes to money. But decades of study suggest one group of individuals consistently scores higher in making rational decisions — Buddhist meditators.
A new study uses neuroimaging to study brain activity when an individual is confronted with a monetary choice that may seem unfair, and finds Buddhist meditators use different areas of the brain than others when confronted with unfair choices, enabling them to make decisions rationally rather than emotionally.
A research team led by Dr. Read Montague, professor of physics at Virginia Tech University, hypothesized that the meditators have trained their brains to function differently and make better choices in certain situations.
Their research “highlights the clinically and socially important possibility that sustained training in mindfulness meditation may impact distinct domains of human decision making,” Montague said.
The research came about when Montague wondered whether some people are capable of ignoring the social consideration of fairness and can appreciate a reward based on its intrinsic qualities alone. “That is,” he said, “can they uncouple emotional reaction from their actual behavior?”
Researchers recruited 26 Buddhist meditators and 40 control subjects and looked at their brain processes using functional MRI (fMRI) while the subjects played the “ultimatum game,” in which the first player proposes 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. Researchers found Buddhist meditators were able to shunt brain activity from an area of the brain linked to the emotion of disgust, rejection, betrayal and mistrust to a brain area that monitors their inner body feelings.
Apparently the Buddhist meditators were able to avoid emotions associated with unfairness and focus on acceptance and thankfulness for whatever reward they did receive.
As noted by the researchers, “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.”
Source: Virginia Tech