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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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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