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Study finds clear–yet surprisingly different–benefits in 3 types of meditation-based mental training

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As cit­i­zens of the 21st cen­tu­ry, we face many prob­lems that come with an indus­tri­al­ized and glob­al­ized world. I’m not a lawyer or a politi­cian, but a psy­chol­o­gist and neu­ro­sci­en­tist. So research on how to train help­ful men­tal and social capac­i­ties is my way to con­tribute to a more healthy, com­mu­nal, and coop­er­a­tive civ­i­liza­tion.

For the past five years, that research has tak­en the form of the ReSource Project, one of the longest and most com­pre­hen­sive stud­ies on the effects of med­i­ta­tion-based men­tal train­ing to date. Lots of research treats the con­cept of med­i­ta­tion as a sin­gle prac­tice, when in fact med­i­ta­tion encom­pass­es a diver­si­ty of men­tal prac­tices that train dif­fer­ent skills and dif­fer­ent parts of the brain. Our goal was to study the spe­cif­ic effects of some major types of men­tal prac­tices and dis­tin­guish their effects on well-being, the brain, behav­ior, and health—and, in par­tic­u­lar, dis­cov­er which prac­tices could help build a more com­pas­sion­ate and inter­con­nect­ed world.

The results so far have been most­ly encour­ag­ing, some­times sur­pris­ing, and cru­cial to under­stand for med­i­ta­tion prac­ti­tion­ers and teach­ers.

Three types of meditation-based mental training

In the ReSource Project, we asked over 300 Ger­man adults ages 20–55 to attend a two-hour class every week and prac­tice for 30 min­utes a day at home. The lessons and prac­tices were designed by myself togeth­er with an expert team of med­i­ta­tion teach­ers and psy­chol­o­gists over the course of sev­er­al years. They include a mul­ti­tude of sec­u­lar­ized med­i­ta­tions derived from var­i­ous Bud­dhist tra­di­tions, as well as prac­tices from West­ern psy­chol­o­gy. Over the course of the study, par­tic­i­pants moved through three dif­fer­ent train­ing mod­ules, which each began with a three-day retreat:

  • Pres­ence (3 months). This mod­ule focus­es on train­ing atten­tion and inter­nal body aware­ness. The exer­cis­es include scan­ning your body, focus­ing on the breath and bring­ing your atten­tion to the present moment when­ev­er your mind wan­ders, and bring­ing atten­tion to the sen­sa­tions of hear­ing and see­ing.
  • Affect (3 months). This mod­ule focus­es on train­ing pos­i­tive social emo­tions like lov­ing-kind­ness, com­pas­sion, and grat­i­tude, as well as accept­ing dif­fi­cult emo­tions and increas­ing our moti­va­tion to be kind and help­ful toward oth­ers. In the Affect and Per­spec­tive mod­ules, there are two dai­ly core prac­tices: one clas­sic med­i­ta­tion and one 10-minute part­ner exer­cise, with par­tic­i­pants assigned to a new part­ner every week on our mobile appli­ca­tion. In the Affect mod­ule, part­ners take turns shar­ing their feel­ings and body sen­sa­tions while recall­ing dif­fi­cult or grat­i­tude-induc­ing expe­ri­ences in their lives, and prac­tic­ing empath­ic lis­ten­ing.
  • Per­spec­tive (3 months). This mod­ule focus­es on meta-cog­ni­tive skills (becom­ing aware of your think­ing), gain­ing per­spec­tive on aspects of your own per­son­al­i­ty, and tak­ing the per­spec­tive of oth­ers. In this mod­ule, the part­ner exer­cise includes tak­ing turns talk­ing about a recent expe­ri­ence from the per­spec­tive of one aspect of your personality—for exam­ple, as if you were ful­ly iden­ti­fied with your “inner judge” or “lov­ing mother”—while the oth­er part­ner lis­tens care­ful­ly and tries to infer the per­spec­tive being tak­en.

Three cohorts moved through these mod­ules in dif­fer­ent orders, allow­ing us to dis­cern the effects of a spe­cif­ic train­ing mod­ule and com­pare it to the oth­er mod­ules. In oth­er words, the cohorts act­ed as “active con­trol groups” for each oth­er. Anoth­er group of par­tic­i­pants didn’t do any train­ing but was still test­ed: Every three months, we mea­sured how par­tic­i­pants were doing with a bar­rage of more than 90 ques­tion­naires, behav­ioral tests, hor­mon­al mark­ers, and brain scans, to see what (if any­thing) improved after each mod­ule.

When I first launched this study, some of my col­leagues thought a year-long men­tal train­ing course was crazy, that par­tic­i­pants would drop out right and left. But that’s not what hap­pened: In fact, less than 8 per­cent of peo­ple dropped out in total.

The multiple–and surprisingly different–benefits for each practice

We found that the three train­ing mod­ules had very dif­fer­ent effects on par­tic­i­pants’ emo­tion­al and cog­ni­tive skills, well-being, and brains—which means that you can expect dif­fer­ent ben­e­fits depend­ing on the type of med­i­ta­tion prac­tice you engage in.

Atten­tion. Accord­ing to our study, atten­tion already improved after just three months of train­ing, whether it was mind­ful­ness-based or com­pas­sion-based. Par­tic­i­pants who com­plet­ed the Pres­ence or Affect mod­ules sig­nif­i­cant­ly improved their scores on a clas­sic atten­tion task. It seems, there­fore, that atten­tion can be cul­ti­vat­ed not only by atten­tion-focused mind­ful­ness prac­tices but also by social-emo­tion­al prac­tices such as the lov­ing-kind­ness med­i­ta­tion.

Com­pas­sion. In our study, one of the ways we mea­sured com­pas­sion was by show­ing par­tic­i­pants videos of peo­ple shar­ing sto­ries of suf­fer­ing from their life and ask­ing them to report how they felt after watch­ing. Ulti­mate­ly, three months of atten­tion-based Pres­ence train­ing didn’t increase com­pas­sion at all. Only par­tic­i­pants who had tak­en the Affect module—which explic­it­ly focus­es on care-based social and emo­tion­al qualities—became more com­pas­sion­ate.

The­o­ry of mind. If we want to resolve con­flicts across cul­tures, the­o­ry of mind—the abil­i­ty to under­stand oth­er people’s men­tal states and put our­selves in their shoes—is a cru­cial skill. We mea­sured the­o­ry of mind with the same video sto­ries, but this time we asked par­tic­i­pants to answer ques­tions about the person’s thoughts, inten­tions, and goals. It turned out that only one module—the Per­spec­tive module—helped par­tic­i­pants improve their the­o­ry of mind at all (though these effects were not strong). Prac­tic­ing atten­tion or com­pas­sion in the Pres­ence or Affect mod­ules didn’t help peo­ple take the per­spec­tive of oth­ers.

Brain plas­tic­i­ty. These dif­fer­ent behav­ioral changes were also reflect­ed in the brain. Using mag­net­ic res­o­nance imag­ing, my col­leagues and I ana­lyzed the vol­ume of gray mat­ter in dif­fer­ent areas of par­tic­i­pants’ brains.

Typ­i­cal­ly, gray mat­ter thins over time as peo­ple age. But after three months of atten­tion-based Pres­ence train­ing, par­tic­i­pants actu­al­ly showed a high­er vol­ume of gray mat­ter in their pre­frontal regions, areas relat­ed to atten­tion, mon­i­tor­ing, and high­er-lev­el aware­ness.

After three months of com­pas­sion-based Affect train­ing, how­ev­er, oth­er regions became thick­er: areas that are involved in empa­thy and emo­tion reg­u­la­tion, such as the supra­mar­gin­al gyrus. Most impor­tant­ly, this thick­en­ing in insu­lar regions of the brain pre­dict­ed increas­es in com­pas­sion­ate behav­ior.

Final­ly, we observed spe­cif­ic thick­en­ing in anoth­er set of brain regions after the Per­spec­tive mod­ule. Gray mat­ter in the tem­poro-pari­etal junc­tion, an area that sup­ports our per­spec­tive-tak­ing abil­i­ties, became thick­er in peo­ple who also improved at the­o­ry of mind tests. This is the first study to show train­ing-relat­ed struc­tur­al changes in the social brains of healthy adults and to reveal that it real­ly mat­ters what you practice—the observed brain changes were spe­cif­ic to dif­fer­ent types of train­ing and coin­cid­ed with improve­ments in emo­tion­al and cog­ni­tive skills.

Social stress. To mea­sure social stress, we gave par­tic­i­pants a noto­ri­ous­ly stress­ful task: deliv­er­ing a speech and then per­form­ing math cal­cu­la­tions to an audi­ence trained to roll their eyes, look bored, and point out errors. This makes peo­ple feel social­ly reject­ed and out of con­trol, like some­thing is wrong with them; it stim­u­lates most people’s bod­ies to pro­duce a lot more of the stress-relat­ed hor­mone cor­ti­sol, which we mea­sured in sali­va.

Three months of mind­ful­ness-based atten­tion and inter­nal body aware­ness train­ing didn’t help peo­ple cope bet­ter with this stress­ful task. But those who prac­ticed the two social mod­ules, Affect and Per­spec­tive, did reduce their cor­ti­sol stress response by up to half com­pared to the con­trol group. We sus­pect that the dai­ly part­ner prac­tices in these mod­ules helped ease people’s fear of being eval­u­at­ed. We face poten­tial eval­u­a­tion by oth­ers every day, and learn­ing to lis­ten non-judg­men­tal­ly and to be less reac­tive prob­a­bly allows us to approach those social­ly stress­ful sit­u­a­tions more calm­ly.

The fact that the mind­ful­ness-based Pres­ence mod­ule did not reduce stress at the hor­mon­al lev­el was sur­pris­ing at first, since pre­vi­ous research has shown that mind­ful atten­tion train­ing can reduce stress. But much of this ear­li­er research asks peo­ple about their stress lev­els with ques­tion­naires, rather than mea­sur­ing bio­log­i­cal mark­ers of stress. When using ques­tion­naires, we found the same thing: After three months of Pres­ence prac­tice, peo­ple said they felt less stressed, as they did after all the oth­er mod­ules. Even though it cer­tain­ly mat­ters how stressed peo­ple sub­jec­tive­ly feel, cor­ti­sol is con­sid­ered the hall­mark of a stress response and is linked to impor­tant health out­comes. Giv­en that this was not reduced by mind­ful­ness atten­tion train­ing alone, we should be wary of gen­er­al­ized claims about its stress-reduc­ing effects.

Some effects take time to develop—something we should remem­ber when­ev­er we sign up for a week­end med­i­ta­tion course or down­load a new med­i­ta­tion app promis­ing us big results in just a few min­utes or days!

What’s next

To sum­ma­rize, mind­ful­ness and med­i­ta­tion are incred­i­bly broad con­cepts, and our research sug­gests that they should be dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed more. It real­ly mat­ters what type of men­tal prac­tice you engage in. Dif­fer­ent types of men­tal train­ing elic­it changes in very dif­fer­ent domains of func­tion­ing, such as atten­tion, com­pas­sion, and high­er-lev­el cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties.

The good news is that with only about 30 min­utes of prac­tice a day, you can sig­nif­i­cant­ly change your behav­ior and the very struc­ture of your brain. How­ev­er, some improve­ments take time to devel­op. Even nine months is just a start.

The sto­ry about med­i­ta­tion and mind­ful­ness will become more com­plex over the years. Besides look­ing at the dif­fer­ent effects of dif­fer­ent types of men­tal prac­tices, researchers are also explor­ing indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences and how cer­tain genes or cer­tain per­son­al­i­ty traits influ­ence how much you ben­e­fit from dif­fer­ent prac­tices. All of this research is mov­ing us to a point where we don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly advo­cate mind­ful­ness for all, but can sug­gest spe­cif­ic prac­tices with spe­cif­ic ben­e­fits for spe­cif­ic peo­ple.

In an increas­ing­ly com­plex world, one of today’s most urgent ques­tions is how we can cul­ti­vate greater glob­al com­pas­sion and a bet­ter under­stand­ing of each oth­er across cul­tur­al and reli­gious divides. Train­ing that focus­es on the inter­de­pen­dence of human beings, on eth­i­cal as well as social qualities—from feel­ings such as com­pas­sion to cog­ni­tive skills like per­spec­tive taking—may be impor­tant not only for indi­vid­ual health but also for com­mu­nal flour­ish­ing.

This essay is adapt­ed and con­densed from a talk by Tania Singer, “Plas­tic­i­ty of the Social Brain: Effects of a One-Year Men­tal Train­ing Study on Brain Plas­tic­i­ty, Social Cog­ni­tion and Atten­tion, Stress, and Proso­cial Behav­ior,” giv­en at the Inter­na­tion­al Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­o­gy Association’s 5th World Con­gress in 2017. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

The Study

Dif­fer­en­tial Ben­e­fits of Men­tal Train­ing Types for Atten­tion, Com­pas­sion, and The­o­ry of Mind (Mind­ful­ness)

  • Descrip­tion: Mind­ful­ness- and, more gen­er­al­ly, med­i­ta­tion-based inter­ven­tions increas­ing­ly gain pop­u­lar­i­ty, effec­tive­ly pro­mot­ing cog­ni­tive, affec­tive, and social capac­i­ties. It is unclear, how­ev­er, if dif­fer­ent types of prac­tice have the same or spe­cif­ic effects on men­tal func­tion­ing. Here we test­ed three con­sec­u­tive three-month train­ing mod­ules aimed at cul­ti­vat­ing either atten­tion, socio-affec­tive qual­i­ties (such as com­pas­sion), or socio-cog­ni­tive skills (such as the­o­ry of mind), in three train­ing cohorts and a retest con­trol cohort (N = 332). While atten­tion per­for­mance improved across the train­ing mod­ules, com­pas­sion increased most strong­ly after socio-affec­tive train­ing and the­o­ry of mind showed selec­tive improve­ments after socio-cog­ni­tive train­ing. These results show that spe­cif­ic men­tal train­ing prac­tices are need­ed to induce plas­tic­i­ty in dif­fer­ent domains of men­tal func­tion­ing, pro­vid­ing a foun­da­tion for evi­dence-based devel­op­ment of more tar­get­ed inter­ven­tions adapt­ed to the needs of dif­fer­ent edu­ca­tion, labor, and health set­tings.

The Study in Context

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Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness

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