What do we really know about meditation, other than the fact that the practice is touted for its apparent ability to help relaxation, ease stress, and quiet the mind? While the Western world has gravitated toward various forms of meditation in recent years, researchers haven’t quite caught up with studies to prove why and how meditation provides these benefits, along with others. Some researchers are working to change that, as evidenced by some of their newly published results.
Michigan State University researchers studied how a single, 20-minute session of guided meditation produced changes to brain activity in participants who’d never before meditated. Their study, published in Brain Sciences, found that open monitoring meditation — which involves tuning inward and paying attention to all that’s happening in body and mind — enhances the ability to detect and pay attention to mistakes. In open monitoring, the individual sits in quiet, and closely pays attention to where their mind goes without getting caught up in the details. While participants meditated, researchers studied their brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG), then had the participants complete a computerized test of distraction. For their next phase using this neuroscientific approach, the researchers plan to include a broader participant group, test different meditation types, and see if brain activity changes will extend to behavioral changes with long-term meditation practice.
Researchers said that investigating the nature of the relationship between mindfulness and error monitoring could hold promise “in understanding the means and extent to which mindfulness exerts its broader influence on contemporary life.”
Women Benefit More Than Men in College-Based Mindfulness Training
A 2017 study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that college age women participating in mindfulness training achieved more benefits than men in certain areas. Specifically, the women displayed greater decreases in negative affect and greater increases in measures of self-compassion and mindfulness. Researchers noted that school-based mindfulness programs offered at schools are becoming more popular, especially since some of the initial studies on such programs available in school settings point to reduced emotional reactivity, improved academic performance, increased resilience to the effects of emotional stress, better attention, and reduced behavioral problems.
As to how and why women appear to benefit more from such training, researchers explained that the trajectory of psychological symptomology between men and women is different, with the divergence starting to appear in their early adolescence. While both groups have incident increases of psychological disorders at that time, young girls have more of an increase, being nearly twice as likely as their peers who are boys to have anxiety and depression. On the other hand, substance use disorder and conduct disorder are more likely among males, a pattern that persists through adulthood. Researchers suggest that treatment outcomes that are gender-specific for men “may become increasingly salient,” since the men may require types of mindfulness interventions that are a better match to men’s particular coping styles.
Mindfulness Can Help Graduate Students
In the first study of Ph.D. graduate students and the effects of mindfulness, Barry et al. (2019) found that participants in a daily 30-minute guided mindfulness practice with a CD had significantly reduced depression, increased resilience and self-efficacy. Authors noted that doctoral study is a highly stressful time that takes its toll on students’ psychological capital, resulting in psychological distress. The results of the study, said researchers, bolster the suggestion that self-administered mindfulness practice can produce meaningful results in psychological health. As reported in Inside Higher Ed, the authors said that students could potentially experience an even greater effect if they practiced more frequently, although they said that shorter practices of 5-10 minutes could also be used with a similar effect.
First-Ever Online Mindfulness-Based Meditation and Ongoing Well-Being Shows Positive Results
In a first-ever concurrent, within mindfulness-based meditation program (MBP) study of how well dosages of meditation affect well-being, Lahtinen and Salmivalli (2019) found some evidence that participation in an online MBT may result in “clinically significant improvement in anxiety,” with the caveat that the participant adheres to the program. In the large study of Finnish upper secondary education students, researchers found a dramatic decrease in both anxiety and sleep problems and an increase in happiness, which occurred during the first weeks of the program. Researchers looked at how meditation practices predicted well-being changes, and vice-versa, at one-week intervals over the 8-week MBP conducted online.
E-Meditation: New Twist Coupling Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation and Mindfulness Techniques
Expanding on Badran et al. (2017) research published in Brain Stimulation in 2017, two of the original authors, Bashar Badran and Baron Short, both from the Medical University of South Carolina, launched a startup company to develop a neurostimulation device to enhance meditation. The brain stimulation researchers have been conducting retreats lasting five days, during which participants were guided on how to use transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) devices to self-stimulate up to two times per day while engaged in meditation. The device sends low current targeted to areas of the brain most involved in meditation. Early results mirror those of the researchers’ original study, in which participants reported increased feelings of calmness, and significant increase in score of a mindfulness measure known as “acting with awareness,” following tDCS use. Side-effects of the device use were minimal, typically slight tingling at site application. Researchers hope to study longer-term benefits and effects of using the device to enhance meditation, particularly for “reining in a wandering mind.”
Inducing Brain Plasticity May Require Specific Meditation-Based Interventions
A study published in Cognition, building upon prior research, found that the increasing popularity of mindfulness and meditation-based interventions for promoting affective, cognitive, and social capacities may require specific mental practices, depending on the brain functioning area targeted. Researchers noted that the evidence points to the fact that inducing plasticity in different areas of brain functioning needs different types of mental training. Authors encourage evidence-based development of more targeted interventions adaptable to needs of individuals in settings of health, labor, and education.