Meditation modifies the cerebral areas related to the objectives of the techniques used.
Meditation changes the architecture of some areas of the brain and improves social skills and reduces anxiety levels, a new study by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, has found, results that are published on Science Advances.
It was already known that meditation is developed through a variety of mental training techniques that, at first, can be practiced by any person. It has also been repeatedly shown that meditation can have a positive effect on certain aspects of health and well-being.
However, up to now, it was unclear what kind of mental practice produces what effect and what are the underlying processes of the detected effects, and this is what this research brings up.
160 people participated in this research, which carried out three training programs, each of them three months long and focused on a specific area of skills.
The first program was dedicated to the factors of consciousness and mindfulness, in which the participants performed basic techniques of meditation, breathing and attention to sensations.
The second program focused on socio-affective competencies, such as compassion, gratitude, empathy or managing difficult emotions. In this program the participants had to work in pairs to share their emotions.
In the third program, focused on socio-cognitive activities, such as self-perception and acquiring the perspective of others, the participants learned to take different perspectives from aspects of their personality from subjective experiences, which they shared through specific exercises and in couples.
The 160 people performed the exercises described for each group for 30 minutes a day, six days a week. At the end of each program, the scientists recorded the status of the participants through psychological tests, the measurement of brain activity through magnetic resonance and also through different analyzes to establish levels of stress in the body, such as the release of cortisol.
At the conclusion of the first program, researchers observed changes in areas of the cerebral cortex linked to attention, while at the end of the other two, centered on socio-affective and socio-cognitive competencies, improvements were seen in aspects such as compassion or making perspective, with changes in the regions of the brain where those abilities develop.
Finally, through a psychosocial stress test, it was discovered that the secretion of cortisol, the stress hormone, decreased more than 51%, although only after finishing the two programs focused on developing social skills. This decline was not perceived at the end of the first program, designed to encourage attention. However, at the end of each of the three programs, the subjective perception of stress had been reduced.
Structural changes in the brain
“Our findings clearly show that brief, specific daily mental training can produce structural changes in the brain, which in turn leads to an improvement in social intelligence,” says researcher Tania Singer in a statement from the Max Planck Institute.
Singer emphasizes the relevance of these findings to the educational system and clinical application, taking into account that “empathy, compassion and perspective are crucial competencies for the success of social interactions, conflict resolution and cooperation.”
The results, Singer concludes, show that any healthy adult can enhance crucial social competencies necessary for successful social interaction and cooperation by reducing stress through meditation, and that each mental exercise has a different effect on the brain, health and behavior.
“Depending on the technique of mental training that is practiced, they will significantly change specific brain structures and behavioral markers linked to them,” said Sofie Valk, lead author of the article. The research has revolved around the ReSource Project.