An interesting study crossed my path this week: from a team of scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. Read study release.

The Max Planck Society, which supports the Max Planck Institute (in all there are 84 such institutes), supports research in science and technology, with 33 Nobel Prizes awarded to their scientist, and widely regarded as one of the foremost basic research organizations in the world.

This large-scale ReSource Project aimed at teasing apart the unique effects of different methods of mental training on the brain, body, and on social behavior.

“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” Max Planck Institute

The study involved 322 healthy adults, between the ages of 20 and 55 years, training for 3-months with three different types of mindfulness practices that emphasized a different skill: Presence (attention), Affect (compassion) and Perspective (social intelligence). Each training began with a 3-day intensive retreat, followed with weekly group instruction and daily home practice. Results from brain imaging found that changes in brain structures were directly related to the form of training practiced.

An overview of the practices and the results of the study –

Presence instruction: focusing on attention and introspective awareness. Core practices included breathing meditation and body scan exercises, including walking meditation – practices that are traditionally thought to heighten attentiveness to vision, sound or taste. (I might refer to this as Focused Attention practices)

Results: significantly greater thickness in areas of the brain associated with attention and executive function.

Affect training: focusing on loving-kindness meditation and dyadic interaction. Included face-to-face exercises examining difficult situations and the practice of acceptance, compassion and empathic listening.

Results: significant changes in cortical thickness of regions previously linked with empathy, compassion, and emotional regulation.

Perspective training: observing one’s thoughts during meditation and engaging in perspective taking with another person. Practices included labeling and monitoring the arrival and departure of thoughts. Included exercises where participants were asked to view an experience from the perspective of another and reflect on how thoughts differed. (I might refer to this as Open Awareness practices)

Results: Significantly increased cortical thickness in areas of the brain associated with perspective taking and Theory of Mind (ability to differentiate between ‘my’ and ‘your’ beliefs and appreciate those other perspectives). Found to perform better on tasks measuring perspective taking.

Physiological and Psychological Stress

The Affect and Perspective practices, with both having a focus on social competencies, were found to be linked to significant decreases in the secretion of the stress hormone cortisol (by up to 51%). It is suggested that the daily discussion of an experience, when met with empathic understanding and non-judgment, may be linked to a drop in physiological stress.

All participants reported feeling less stressed (subject perception) after all three of the instructions.

The findings seem to point out that distinct forms of mindfulness practice may have very different effects.

And to finish, a really great conclusion at the end of the release:

“many currently popular mindfulness programmes may be a valid method to foster attention and strengthen cognitive efficiency. However, if we as a society want to become less vulnerable to social stress or train social competencies, such as empathy, compassion, and perspective-taking, mental training techniques focusing more on the “we” and social connectedness among people may be a better choice”.

[Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash]

*Note: I share this research with the awareness that scientific research in the area of meditation and mindfulness (and the brain) is only just beginning. So, I include the wise note ‘with due modesty’ when sharing this very brief outline of complex research, and refer again to my own mantra: Manage expectations. Do the practice. Conduct your own research.