A growing interest in the practice of meditation has also spurred a growing body of research on the topic. Recent research done by the Max Planck Institute of Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, and published in the journal Science Advances, implies that different forms of meditation can improve your brain in different ways.
Meditation seems to have a variety of different positive effects such as increasing your empathy, increasing your ability to stay calm, and improving your overall attention span. The study in the journal Science Advances seems to indicate that the different effects were due to different areas of the brain changing in structure.
The study examined over 300 different people, assigning them to three different meditation regimens, with each regiment focusing on a different kind of meditation. The training regimens were done over a three month time period.
Three Types of Meditation
One of the types of meditation was the classic “mindfulness meditation”, used to help people focus their attention on the current moment. This is the kind of meditation that is often accomplished by paying attention to breathing techniques. The subjects in this training regimen were asked to practice for 30 minutes a day, six days a week.
The other meditation variants were focused on social activities. One of the two methods encourage people to adopt different perspectives such as being a “curious child” or being a “worried mother”, to increase their compassion. The final method of meditation focused on having people express their feelings to a stranger about everyday things that annoyed them, taking note of the emotions they were feeling.
After the study participants ran through the training regimens, a number of tests were given to them. They were put through a psychosocial stress test as well as a behavioral test, and analyzed with an MRI scan as well. The researchers found that certain regions of the subjects’ brains showed increased thickness, dependent upon which training regimens the subject completed. For instance, those who had engaged in mindfulness training were found to exhibit thickening in the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex, which are usually associated with attention and deep thinking.
During a follow-up study, it was reported that every member of the three groups who used the meditation techniques reported that there was less stress in their daily lives. Interestingly enough, only the subjects who had completed the more socially focused meditation regimens show signs of reduced physical stress, in addition to reduced psychological stress. Those who underwent the social meditation showed around a 50% drop in the hormone cortisol, a hormone linked with stress, in comparison with experimental controls.
Sofie Valk, one of the authors of the study, says that the two social modules which focused on either socio-cognitive or socio-affective competencies displayed “selective behavioral improvements” regarding both perspective-taking and general compassion. Valk says that the behavioral changes their test subjects showed corresponded with demonstrations of brain plasticity in the associated regions of the cortex.
Rethinking Mindfulness Training
Professor Tania Singer, the project’s principal investigator, says that the results of the study imply that with daily mental practice social intelligence can be increased.
“Even though brain plasticity, in general, has long been studied in neuroscience, until now little was known about the plasticity of the social brain. Our results provide impressive evidence for brain plasticity in adults through brief and concentrated daily mental practice, leading to an increase in social intelligence,” says Singer.
Drawing an analogy to sports, Singer argues that meditation courses could benefit from a redesign that focuses on specific types of training to hone specific skills. For instance, the question “What does sports do to your body?” is far too vague to be useful, as a fitness expert would need to clarify if you mean swimming or soccer. Both types of sports train different groups of muscles, and similarly different types of meditation training would train different cognitive skills.
Singer argues that being able to effectively train the two kinds of social intelligences is especially important because most of the stress people experience in modern life, worries about not living up to others’ expectations or being judged harshly, is social stress. This kind of stress could be better managed with the different types of meditation, Singer states.
Cognitive neuroscientist Roi Cohen Kadosh, from the University of Oxford, is a little skeptical but open to the possibility that the findings are very significant.
“We still have to see how it affects everyday life. But if there are changes in real life, that could be pretty significant,” says Kadosh.
Kadosh notes that all volunteers engaged in a least a little mindfulness training before completing their assigned training regimen, so it could be that the effects seen in the study come as a result of this basic attention training.
Practicing Mindful Skepticism
Kadosh is not the only person to show some skepticism about the effects meditation can have on our brains. A recent paper published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science argues for caution regarding mindfulness training and meditation, asserting that much of the scientific data on mindfulness is lacking. The authors say that many of the studies which allegedly support the benefits of mindfulness suffer from poor experimental design. There are very rarely control groups in these studies, and the authors say a larger problem comes from the fact that there isn’t even an agreed upon definition regarding what mindfulness is.
The authors of the paper cite a 2015 issue of American Psychologist which reported that only around 9% of all research into mindfulness based treatments had included a control group in their clinical trials. Furthermore, a substantial placebo-controlled meta-analysis found that the efficacy of mindfulness training was often unimpressive.
Nicholas Van Dam, the report’s lead author and clinical psychologist at the University of Melbourne, says the report shouldn’t be taken as evidence that mindfulness is useless. However, he emphasizes that “the scientific rigor just isn’t there yet to be making these big claims.”
Van Dam does say that there is some compelling evidence that mindfulness can benefit those who suffer from depression, pain, and anxiety. Van Dam says there are many areas where mindfulness-based programs seem to be promising, but that good scientists should insist upon larger scale, randomized controlled trials before making impressive sounding conclusions. As for the two studies run by Singer and colleagues, Van Dam thinks the research methods are sound.