People have been practicing meditation for thousands of years – and for very good reason, it seems.
Two new studies published in the journal Science Advances have found that different forms of meditation can have different positive effects on your mind, from improving your attention span, to making you more empathetic, reducing your stress levels, or helping you stay cool under pressure. Most remarkably, however, it appears practicing different forms of meditation resulted in a different part of the brain changing its physical structure.
"Even though brain plasticity, in general, has long been studied in neuroscience, until now little was known about the plasticity of the social brain," explained Professor Tania Singer, principal investigator of the ReSource Project. "Our results provide impressive evidence for brain plasticity in adults through brief and concentrated daily mental practice, leading to an increase in social intelligence."
Their study gathered over 300 people to take part in three different training modules, each focusing on a different type of meditation. One of the techniques was based on mindfulness meditation, a psychological technique used to help focus your attention on experiences occurring in the present moment often through simple breathing techniques.
The other two were both more socially-inclined. The second involved aiding people to open up emotionally by allowing them to talk to a stranger about everyday annoyances. The final method encouraged people to think about issues from a different perspective within their personality, such as the "worried mother” or the "curious child,” to foster a deeper compassion.
After being trained in these techniques, they then analyzed the participants through an MRI brain scan, a behavior test, and psychosocial stress test.
They found that particular parts of their brain’s thickness changed significantly depending on which training technique was practiced. For example, compassion-based meditation showed increases in the limbic system, a brain region associated emotional regulation. In the mindfulness-based practices, they observed changes in the cortex related to attention and executive functioning.
All three groups reported less stress in their life after learning the meditation techniques. However, only those who practiced socially-inclined meditation exhibited reduced signs of physical stress. These volunteers showed up to a 51 percent drop in stress hormone cortisol levels compared with controls.
"In the two social modules, focusing either on socio-affective or socio-cognitive competencies, we were able to show selective behavioral improvements with regard to compassion and perspective-taking. These changes in behavior corresponded with the degree of structural brain plasticity in specific regions in the cortex that support these capacities," first author Sofie Valk added.
So, the moral of the story: meditation has verifiable positive benefits for your mental well-being. However, which of these benefits you receive depends on the type of meditation you practice – so choose wisely.