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Toward a Compassionate Intersectional Neuroscience: Increasing Diversity and Equity in Contemplative Neuroscience.

  • Author(s): Weng, Helen Y;
  • Ikeda, Mushim P;
  • Lewis-Peacock, Jarrod A;
  • Chao, Maria T;
  • Fullwiley, Duana;
  • Goldman, Vierka;
  • Skinner, Sasha;
  • Duncan, Larissa G;
  • Gazzaley, Adam;
  • Hecht, Frederick M
  • et al.

Mindfulness and compassion meditation are thought to cultivate prosocial behavior. However, the lack of diverse representation within both scientific and participant populations in contemplative neuroscience may limit generalizability and translation of prior findings. To address these issues, we propose a research framework called Intersectional Neuroscience which adapts research procedures to be more inclusive of under-represented groups. Intersectional Neuroscience builds inclusive processes into research design using two main approaches: 1) community engagement with diverse participants, and 2) individualized multivariate neuroscience methods to accommodate neural diversity. We tested the feasibility of this framework in partnership with a diverse U.S. meditation center (East Bay Meditation Center, Oakland, CA). Using focus group and community feedback, we adapted functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) screening and recruitment procedures to be inclusive of participants from various under-represented groups, including racial and ethnic minorities, gender and sexual minorities, people with disabilities, neuropsychiatric disorders, and/or lower income. Using person-centered screening and study materials, we recruited and scanned 15 diverse meditators (80% racial/ethnic minorities, 53% gender and sexual minorities). The participants completed the EMBODY task - which applies individualized machine learning algorithms to fMRI data - to identify mental states during breath-focused meditation, a basic skill that stabilizes attention to support interoception and compassion. All 15 meditators' unique brain patterns were recognized by machine learning algorithms significantly above chance levels. These individualized brain patterns were used to decode the internal focus of attention throughout a 10-min breath-focused meditation period, specific to each meditator. These data were used to compile individual-level attention profiles during meditation, such as the percentage time attending to the breath, mind wandering, or engaging in self-referential processing. This study provides feasibility of employing an intersectional neuroscience approach to include diverse participants and develop individualized neural metrics of meditation practice. Through inclusion of more under-represented groups while developing reciprocal partnerships, intersectional neuroscience turns the research process into an embodied form of social action.

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