Studies suggest we better train the mind as we train the body: with cross-training and in good company
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.
- 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.
- 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
- Study: Mindful meditation works. Now, how to navigate the most popular options?
- Which kind of mindfulness meditation to choose? Comparing sitting meditation, body scan, and mindful yoga
- 10 ways in which Yoga Meditation helps nourish Body, Brain and Mind
- How learning changes your brain
- Can brain training work? Yes, if it meets these 5 conditions
- Six tips to build resilience and prevent brain-damaging stress