Different Meditation Types Train Distinct Parts of Your Brain
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.
That the brain changes physically when we learn a new skill, like juggling or playing a musical instrument, has been known for over a decade. Previous studies had suggested that meditation does something similar for parts of the brain involved in focused attention.
Two new studies published in Science Advances suggest that certain kinds of meditation can change social and emotional circuitry, too. 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.
One technique was based on mindfulness meditation, and taught people to direct attention to the breath or body. A second type concentrated on compassion and emotional connection via loving kindness meditations and non-judgmental problem-sharing sessions with a partner. A final method encouraged people to think about issues from different points of view, also via a mix of partnered sessions and solo meditation.
In one study, MRI scans taken after each three-month course showed that parts of the cortex involved in the specific skill that was trained grew thicker in comparison with scans from a control group.
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.
All of the brain changes were matched by improvements in tests of the relevant skills.
Just like exercise
Tania Singer, a social neuroscientist and the lead researcher on the study, says that meditation courses should be better designed for specific outcomes, just as exercise programmes might target certain physical weaknesses. “It’s like asking a sport expert ‘what does sport do to your body’. The expert would say, do you mean swimming or horse-riding? You can imagine mental training being as complex,” she says.
Roi Cohen Kadosh, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, thinks the findings are potentially important. “We still have to see how it affects everyday life. But if there are changes in real life, that could be pretty significant,” he says. He also points out that all the volunteers first did mindfulness meditation, so it is an open question is whether any change depends on first having done some attention training. But, he says, “it’s progress”.
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.
The researchers found that mindfulness meditation alone made the volunteers feel calmer when asked to give a presentation at short notice, but their cortisol levels were no different from those in controls.
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.
Singer says this is important because most of the stress that we experience in modern life is social stress: the fear of being judged harshly or falling short of expectations. This kind of stress is linked to mental health problems and disease, and the new findings suggest that mindfulness meditation alone may not save us from it.
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.