Contemplative exercise can improve your life by refining your mind, so it’s worth trying. But it’s also worth knowing what will work for your particular purposes.
An Oct. 4 study in Science Advances (pdf), led by neuroscientist Sofie Valk at the Max Planck Institute for Human and Cognitive Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, could help answer this question. Researchers tested brain plasticity in about 300 people new to meditation practices. They examined the effects of three different sets of cognitive exercises—focused on presence, affect, and perspective, respectively—finding changes in different brain cortices governing various behaviors after training in each type.
Presence courses taught mindfulness through body and breath exercises. Affect training focused on loving-kindness meditation, generating and directing good feelings. The perspective course taught participants to see from the points of view of both their inner selves and other people. (More on each of these later!)
The researchers tested for changes by taking brain scans of participants with magnetic resonance imaging tools. They also tested participants’ behavior. Cortical thickness increased in four distinct regions of the brain associated with presence, affect, and perspective, respectively, and participants’ responses to tasks shifted after undergoing the different training modules.
This new study was unique in that it focused on subjects who hadn’t practiced meditation before. Each subject did different cognitive exercises for three months. Each course lasted three months and participants were all “healthy adults” ranging in age from 20 to 55 years old.
They were split into two different groups and underwent the training in a different order. This did not influence the results, suggesting that the changes were associated with the types of training, not the order in which participants underwent them.
Each group went on a retreat, met weekly, and did daily exercises at least five times a week, some on their own and some online with other participants. Of the 300 who began, about 25 dropped out. Those who remained did show brain changes, which were measured throughout the study.
You too can decide to reshape your brain and behavior, even if you’re new to this kind of exercise. The idea is that by cultivating contemplative skills, you manage real life difficulties with more sophisticated tools, a more refined mind that knows itself better. With enough practice, the connections made during meditation arise organically, all the time, so that your life is itself a walking meditation of sorts.
But you do have to pick the right practice type for your particular needs—unless you’re one of those uber-humans who does all the sports, the cognitive equivalent of a deep-sea-diving-mountain-climbing-ultra-runner.
Think of meditation as exercise for your brain. You wouldn’t go running to bulk up—you’d lift weights. And you wouldn’t lift weights if you wanted to be willowy. You’d run. Same goes for meditation. Don’t cultivate compassion if what you seek is focus—you’ll only end up distracted by the good feelings you have for humanity.
All three types of contemplative exercises, when practiced consistently for three months, seemed to work for study participants. And of course, all three courses work together. The subjects ultimately were more present, compassionate, and complex in their approach to tests after completing the courses, though they had no prior experience practicing mental sport.
So how would one adopt these practices in daily life? Glad you asked:
This training was designed to cultivate present-moment attention and was based on mindfulness interventions introduced by physician and Zen practitioner John Kabat-Zinn in his 1990 book Full Catastrophe Living. These exercises center on noticing the breath and learning to watch the mind at work, seeing moment-to-moment changes. The study subjects also did walking meditations and body scans, cultivating attention to sensations.
When the subjects focused on presence training, their prefrontal cortex (PFC) grew thicker. The PFC governs focus, organization, and complex planning. After practicing mindfulness exercises like returning to the breath, noticing bodily sensations and cultivating attention, they became more present and this was evidenced by their improved attention in test tasks.
During this course participants focused on loving-kindness-meditation of the kind made famous by the Dalai Lama. Subjects were taught to connect with feelings of love and care by imagining a baby, a cute animal, someone close and kind, a safe place, or warm feelings in the body. Participants mentally repeated phrases like “May you be happy,” “May you be healthy,” “May you be safe,” and “May you live with ease,” directing good feelings toward the self and others. This type of meditation fosters awareness of interconnectedness and cultivates compassion.
This training course also included empathic listening sessions in which participants practiced hearing another person speak, without judgment or comment, offering only empathetic attention. The subjects exchanged daily with a partner online and traded places, listening to the other person after being heard.
Affect training changed the insular cortex which manages consciousness and emotion. Spending three months consciously cultivating feelings of kindness for family, friends, and strangers taught the study subjects to feel more kindly toward others. They viewed videos differently after training, with the newly-contemplative participants more able to generate understanding for tales of woe. Images of the brain showed that the area governing feeling generation grew visibly thicker during this training period, too.
Perspective training focused on growing comprehension of multiple and conflicting points of view in participants. The course was based on the Internal Family Systems Therapy approach developed by psychologist Dr. Robert Schwartz, which emphasizes awareness of different parts of the self and others. Study subjects were taught to consider things from different angles. They described events from an emotional, behavioral, or physical perspective, or put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
This training changed areas of the brain governing hearing and language production. After learning to see from many perspectives, subjects’ inferior frontal cortex, which is involved in language processing, and the lateral temporal cortex, which governs auditory skills, grew thicker. Practicing actively taking the points of view of others and learning to see conflicts in themselves, participants developed a batter ability to see and hear clearly, providing more sophisticated test responses.