In the mid-20th century, new evidence showed that the brain could be “plastic” and that experience could cause changes in the brain. Plasticity has been associated with learning new skills including spatial navigation, aerobic exercise and balance training.
However, the question remains whether mindfulness interventions, like meditation, can change the structure of the brain. Some studies using a well-known eight-week course to reduce stress based on mindfulness have suggested this. However, this study was limited in scope and technology, and possibly distorted by electoral pools of participants.
In a new study, a team from the Center for Common Sense at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, led by Richard J. Davidson found no evidence of structural changes in the brain during short-term mindfulness training.
Posted on May 20th in Advances in science, the research team is the largest and most tightly controlled to date. In two new trials, more than 200 healthy participants with no meditation experience or mental health problems underwent an MRI scan to measure their brains before being randomly counted in one of three study groups: an eight-week MBSR course not based on mindfulness. an intervention in the area of well-being called the Health Improvement Program, or a control group that has not undergone any training.
The MBSR course was taught by certified instructors and included mindfulness practices such as yoga, meditation and body awareness. The HEP course was designed as an occupation similar to the MBSR, but without mindfulness training. Instead, HEP involved participants in exercise, music therapy, and nutrition. Both groups spent extra time practicing at home.
After each eight-week trial, all participants underwent a final MRI scan to measure changes in brain structure. Data from the two trials were combined to create a larger sample size. No significant differences in structural changes in the brain were found between the MBSR and any control group.
Participants were also asked to self-report attentiveness after the study. Individuals in both the MBSR and HEP groups reported increased attentiveness compared to the control group, suggesting that improved attentional self-assessment may be due to the benefits of any type of wellness intervention in a broader sense rather than specific for the practice of mindfulness meditation.
So what about a previous study that found evidence of structural change? Because participants in this study were looking for a course to reduce stress, they may have had more room for improvement than the healthy population studied here. In other words, in the words of lead author of the new study, behavioral scientist and first author Tammy King, “a simple act of choosing to enroll in an MBSR may be associated with increased benefits.” The current study also had a much larger sample size, which increased confidence in the findings.
However, as the team writes in the new article, “it may turn out that only with a much longer duration of training or training clearly focused on one form of practice, structural changes will be detected.” While structural changes in the brain are manifested during physical and spatial training, mindfulness training covers a variety of psychological areas such as attention, compassion, and emotion. This training involves a complex network of areas of the brain, each of which can vary to varying degrees in different people, making general changes at the group level difficult to observe.
These amazing results ultimately underscore the importance of validation for positive findings and the need for validation by replication. In addition, studies of long-term interventions, as well as those that are exclusively focused on the practice of meditation, can lead to different results. “We’re still in the early stages of research into the effects of meditation training on the brain, and we need to discover a lot,” Davidson says.
This work was partly supported by the National Institutes of Health (grants P01AT004952, P50-MH084051, R01-MH43454, T32MH018931, P30 HD003352-449015 and U54 HD090256), the National Academy of Education of John Fetzer and S. Fetzer. postdoctoral fellowship.
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