Mindfulness can change brain structure and reduce social stress

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Mindfulness can change brain structure and reduce social stress

Meditation is beneficial for our well-being. This ancient wisdom has been supported by scientific studies focusing on the practice of mindfulness.

However, the words “mindfulness” and “meditation” denote a variety of mental training techniques that aim at the cultivation of various different competencies.

In other words, despite growing interest in meditation research, it remains unclear which type of mental practice is particularly useful for improving either attention and mindfulness or social competencies, such as compassion and perspective-taking.

Other open questions are, for example, whether such practices can induce structural brain plasticity and alter brain networks underlying the processing of such competencies, and which training methods are most effective in reducing social stress.

To answer these questions, researchers conducted the large-scale ReSource Project aiming at teasing apart the unique effects of different methods of mental training on the brain, body, and on social behavior.

The ReSource Project consisted of three 3-month training modules, each focusing on a different competency. The first module trained mindfulness-based attention and interoception.

Participants were instructed in classical meditation techniques similar to those taught in the 8-week Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR), which requires one to focus attention on the breath (Breathing Meditation), on sensations in different parts of the body (Body Scan), or on visual or auditory cues in the environment.

Both exercises were practiced in solitude.

Training in the second module focused on socio-affective competencies, such as compassion, gratitude, and dealing with difficult emotions.

In addition to classical meditation exercises, participants learnt a new technique requiring them to practice each day for 10 minutes in pairs.

These partner exercises, or so-called “contemplative dyads”, were characterized by a focused exchange of every-day life affective experiences aiming to train gratitude, dealing with difficult emotions, and empathic listening.

In the third module, participants trained socio-cognitive abilities, such as metacognition and perspective-taking on aspects of themselves and on the minds of others.

Again, besides classical meditation exercises, this module also offered dyadic practices focusing on improving perspective-taking abilities.

In pairs, participants learnt to mentally take the perspective of an “inner part” or aspect of their personality. Examples of inner parts were the “worried mother”, the “curious child”, or the “inner judge”.

By reflecting on a recent experience from this perspective, the speaker in dyadic pair-exercise trained in perspective-taking on the self, thus gaining a more comprehensive understanding of his or her inner world.

By trying to infer which inner part is speaking, the listener practices taking the perspective of the other.

All exercises were trained on six days a week for a total of 30 minutes a day.

Researchers assessed a variety of measures such as psychological behavioral tests, brain measures by means of magnetic resonance-imaging (MRI), and stress markers such as cortisol release before and after each of the three three-month training modules.

“Depending on which mental training technique was practiced over a period of three months, specific brain structures and related behavioral markers changed significantly in the participants.”

For example, after the training of mindfulness-based attention for three months, we observed changes in the cortex in areas previously shown to be related to attention and executive functioning.

Simultaneously, attention increased in computer-based tasks measuring executive aspects of attention, while performance in measures of compassion or perspective-taking had not increased significantly.

These social abilities were only impacted in our participants during the other two more intersubjective modules”, states Sofie Valk, first author of the study.

“In the two social modules, focusing either on socio-affective or socio-cognitive competencies, we were able to show selective behavioral improvements with regard to compassion and perspective-taking.”

“These changes in behavior corresponded with the degree of structural brain plasticity in specific regions in the cortex which support these capacities”, according to Valk.

“Our results provide impressive evidence for brain plasticity in adults through brief and concentrated daily mental practice, leading to an increase in social intelligence.”

“As empathy, compassion, and perspective-taking are crucial competencies for successful social interactions, conflict resolution, and cooperation, these findings are highly relevant to our educational systems as well as for clinical application”, explains Prof. Tania Singer, principal investigator of the ReSource Project.

Besides differentially affecting brain plasticity, the different types of mental training also differentially affected the stress response.

Interestingly, despite these differences on the level of stress physiology, each of the 3-month training modules reduced the subjective perception of stress.

This means that although objective, physiological changes in social stress reactivity were only seen when participants engaged with others and trained their inter-subjective abilities, and participants felt subjectively less stressed after all mental training modules.

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News source: Max Planck Institute. The content is edited for length and style purposes.
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