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


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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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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