A major study published by neuroscientist and psychology researchers in Germany shows very clear, but somewhat surprising, benefits of mindfulness meditation.
The ReSource Project was 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. The goal was to study the specific effects of three major types of mental training 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.
Over 300 German adults ages 20–55 attended a two-hour class every week and practiced for 30 minutes a day at home. The practices included 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. This required quite a commitment as each of the mental trainings lasted for a period of three months, a total time of nine months of learning and practice.
The three types of mental training were:
- Presence – training attention and body awareness, using techniques that include breath awareness, body scanning and giving attention to the senses of seeing and hearing.
- Affect – training positive social emotions including loving kindness, compassion and gratitude, while also accepting difficult emotions and practicising empathic listening.
- Perspective – developing meta-cognition skills, which involves developing awareness of thoughts and emotions without getting caught up in them.
Each of the practices had different results but in combination led to:
- Improvement in scores in classic attention exercises
- Increases in compassion for others
- Improvements in ‘theory of mind’ (empathy by seeing things from others’ perspective)
- Reduction in cortisol stress response
Probably the most interesting finding of all is in brain plasticity (physical changes in the brain). Each of the mental trainings resulted in an increase in grey matter in the corresponding part of the brain. Three months of attention-based Presence training led to a higher volume of gray matter in the participants’ prefrontal regions, areas related to attention, monitoring, and higher-level awareness. Three months of compassion-based Affect training led to thickening of the supramarginal gyrus, an area involved in empathy and emotion regulation. Three months of Perspective training led to more gray matter in the temporo-parietal junction, an area that supports our perspective-taking abilities.
The study shows that mindfulness and meditation are broad concepts, and 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 from this study 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 other great news is that this training is available to everyone. The Mindfulness Now Course delivered by Mindful Me incorporates training in all of the techniques used in this research.
This article is a summary of a longer article published on sharpbrains.com.
The full research paper is published on the website of the Centre for Open Science.