What kinds of mental activities are capable of actually changing the brain?
written by Alice Walton Forbes edited by O Society Mar 7, 2019
When promises of bolstered IQ and enhanced brain function via specially-designed “brain games” fizzle out, what’s next? Meditation/mindfulness training accumulate impressive evidence, which suggests suggests such practices can and do change not only the structure and function of the brain at the neuroanatomy level, practice also changes our behavior and our perceptions of moment-to-moment experience.
A study from the Max Planck Institute finds three different types of meditation training link to changes in corresponding brain regions. These results, published in Science Advances as “Structural plasticity of the social brain: Differential change after socio-affective and cognitive mental training,” show relevance to our schools and businesses and, of course, application to the general public at large.
Participants, who were between 20 and 55 years of age, engaged in three different types of training for three months each, totaling a nine-month study period.
The word “zazen” is used by Dōgen in this discourse for two different states:
The first refers to ‘sitting in meditation,’ which is physically sitting down in order to practice meditation.
The second refers to ‘seated meditation,’ which is being spiritually centered no matter where one is or what one is doing, neither pushing away nor denying anything as it arises, nor clinging to anything, including some specific form of meditating. To truly do seated meditation is to be, as Dōgen says, “seated Buddha.”
The first training is dubbed the “Presence,” very similar to focused-awareness meditation, an ancient practice of recent study. In this study, participants learned to focus their attention, bring it back when it wanders, and attend to their breathing and other internal body sensations.
The second training is called “Affect,” which seeks to enhance empathy and compassion for others. Participants learn “loving-kindness” (metta) meditation and work with partners, the goal of which is to enhance one’s compassion and empathy.
The third training is named “Perspective,” akin to mindfulness or open-monitoring meditation. Here, the focus is on observing one’s own thoughts non-judgmentally and enhancing understanding of the perspectives of others.
In “metta” meditation practice, we direct loving-kindness toward ourselves and then, in a sequence of expansion, towards somebody we love already. Somebody we are neutral towards. Somebody we have difficulty with. And ultimately toward all beings everywhere without distinction.
In “vipassana” meditation practice, we become aware of our ever-changing experiences, without adding to what is going on through our reactions and projections.
The main difference between metta and vipassana is metta is a concentration practice, while vipassana is an insight practice. This is a functional difference. If doing mindfulness practice, then there is no such thing as a distraction. Pay attention to whatever arises in awareness and make this an object of meditation.
The researchers wagered training in each of these methods would lead to volume increases in corresponding brain areas, and this is basically what they found, as they scanned the participants’ brains at the end of each module and compared groups with one another.
Presence training is linked to enhanced thickness in the anterior prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), areas known to be involved strongly in attention.
Affect training is linked to increased thickness in regions known to be involved in socially-driven emotions, such as empathy.
Perspective training is associated with changes in areas involved in understanding the mental states of others, and inhibiting the perspective of oneself.
The results offer a nuanced look at how meditation can change the brain, and in a relatively short amount of time. Researchers consistently find experienced meditators of significantly altered brain structure and function; however, a growing number of studies also find relatively brief meditation training in novices. For example, an Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program shifts brain function, improves well-being, and reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The results may be applicable in a number of settings, for kids and adults alike. Our findings suggest a potential biological basis for how mindfulness and different aspects of social intelligence can be nurtured.
This kind of sensitivity may be even more important nowadays than in days past; as our communities become globalized and populations continue to rise, understanding of others’ experiences becomes more and more essential to human survival.
With growing globalization of our economies, interconnectedness of our cultures, and complexity of our societies, such ‘soft skills’ become increasingly important. Social competences, such as empathy, compassion, and taking the perspective of another person, allow for a better understanding of others’ feelings and beliefs, an understanding crucial for successful cooperation.
Regardless of method, meditation – in its different forms of seated, standing, walking, moving, and so on – is a powerful way to boost the types of intelligence and cognitive functions which matter most, not only as practical matter, but as an an ethical one as well.