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Studies suggest we better train the mind as we train the body: with cross-training and in good company

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Dif­fer­ent med­i­ta­tion types train dis­tinct parts of your brain (New Sci­en­tist):

We are used to hear­ing that med­i­ta­tion is good for the brain, but now it seems that not just any kind of med­i­ta­tion will do. Just like phys­i­cal exer­cise, the kind of improve­ments you get depends on exact­ly how you train – and most of us are doing it all wrong

The research comes out of the ReSource Project at the Max Planck Insti­tute for Human Cog­ni­tive and Brain Sci­ences in Leipzig, Ger­many, and looked at the effects of three dif­fer­ent med­i­ta­tion tech­niques on the brains and bod­ies of more than 300 vol­un­teers over 9 months…

Mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion increased thick­ness in the pre­frontal cor­tex and pari­etal lobes, both linked to atten­tion con­trol, while com­pas­sion-based med­i­ta­tion showed increas­es in the lim­bic sys­tem, which process­es emo­tions, and the ante­ri­or insu­la, which helps bring emo­tions into con­scious aware­ness. Per­spec­tive-tak­ing train­ing boost­ed regions involved in the­o­ry of mind…

A sec­ond study looked at meditation’s impact on stress lev­els in the same vol­un­teers. Many stud­ies have report­ed that med­i­ta­tion makes peo­ple feel calmer, but the effects on lev­els of the stress hor­mone cor­ti­sol have been mixed. The prob­lem could be that med­i­ta­tion tends to be a solo activity…After engag­ing in face-to-face ses­sions with a part­ner in addi­tion to com­pas­sion or per­spec­tive-based med­i­ta­tion, how­ev­er, vol­un­teers showed up to a 51 per cent drop in cor­ti­sol lev­els com­pared with con­trols…

When it does work, Singer says, it’s prob­a­bly down to the social aspect of attend­ing a med­i­ta­tion group rather than the prac­tice itself. “It’s not just get­ting calm [that’s respon­si­ble],” she says.

The Studies

Struc­tur­al plas­tic­i­ty of the social brain: Dif­fer­en­tial change after socio-affec­tive and cog­ni­tive men­tal train­ing (Sci­ence Advances)

  • From the abstract: Although neu­ro­sci­en­tif­ic research has revealed expe­ri­ence-depen­dent brain changes across the life span in sen­so­ry, motor, and cog­ni­tive domains, plas­tic­i­ty relat­ing to social capac­i­ties remains large­ly unknown. To inves­ti­gate whether the tar­get­ed men­tal train­ing of dif­fer­ent cog­ni­tive and social skills can induce spe­cif­ic changes in brain mor­phol­o­gy, we col­lect­ed lon­gi­tu­di­nal mag­net­ic res­o­nance imag­ing (MRI) data through­out a 9-month men­tal train­ing inter­ven­tion from a large sam­ple of adults between 20 and 55 years of age…Training of present-moment focused atten­tion most­ly led to increas­es in cor­ti­cal thick­ness in pre­frontal regions, socio-affec­tive train­ing induced plas­tic­i­ty in fron­toin­su­lar regions, and socio-cog­ni­tive train­ing includ­ed change in infe­ri­or frontal and lat­er­al tem­po­ral cortices…Our lon­gi­tu­di­nal find­ings indi­cate struc­tur­al plas­tic­i­ty in well-known socio-affec­tive and socio-cog­ni­tive brain net­works in healthy adults based on tar­get­ed short dai­ly men­tal prac­tices. These find­ings could pro­mote the devel­op­ment of evi­dence-based men­tal train­ing inter­ven­tions in clin­i­cal, edu­ca­tion­al, and cor­po­rate set­tings aimed at cul­ti­vat­ing social intel­li­gence, proso­cial moti­va­tion, and coop­er­a­tion.

Spe­cif­ic reduc­tion in cor­ti­sol stress reac­tiv­i­ty after social but not atten­tion-based men­tal train­ing (Sci­ence Advances)

  • From the abstract: Psy­choso­cial stress is a pub­lic health bur­den in mod­ern soci­eties. Chron­ic stress–induced dis­ease process­es are, in large part, medi­at­ed via the acti­va­tion of the hypo­thal­a­m­ic-pitu­itary-adren­al (HPA) axis and the sym­pa­thet­ic-adren­al-medullary sys­tem. We asked whether the con­tem­pla­tive men­tal train­ing of dif­fer­ent prac­tice types tar­get­ing atten­tion­al, socio-affec­tive (for exam­ple, com­pas­sion), or socio-cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties (for exam­ple, per­spec­tive-tak­ing) in the con­text of a 9-month lon­gi­tu­di­nal train­ing study offers an effec­tive means for psy­choso­cial stress reduction…only the train­ing of inter­sub­jec­tive skills via socio-affec­tive and socio-cog­ni­tive routes atten­u­at­ed the phys­i­o­log­i­cal stress response, specif­i­cal­ly the secre­tion of the HPA axis end-prod­uct cor­ti­sol, by up to 51%. The assessed auto­nom­ic and innate immune mark­ers were not influ­enced by any prac­tice type. Men­tal train­ing focused on present-moment atten­tion and inte­ro­cep­tive aware­ness as imple­ment­ed in many mind­ful­ness-based inter­ven­tion pro­grams was thus lim­it­ed to stress reduc­tion on the lev­el of self-report. How­ev­er, its effec­tive­ness was equal to that of inter­sub­jec­tive prac­tice types in boost­ing the asso­ci­a­tion between sub­jec­tive and endocrine stress mark­ers. Our results reveal a broad­ly acces­si­ble low-cost approach to acquir­ing psy­choso­cial stress resilience. Short dai­ly inter­sub­jec­tive prac­tice may be a promis­ing method for min­i­miz­ing the inci­dence of chron­ic social stress–related dis­ease, there­by reduc­ing indi­vid­ual suf­fer­ing and reliev­ing a sub­stan­tial finan­cial bur­den on soci­ety.

The Studies in Context

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