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Meditation for a stronger brain

Researchers say a type of meditation called integrative mind-body training can strengthen connections in certain areas of the brain, even when practiced for as little as 11 hours. Psychologist Michael Posner describes the study, and explains the brain changes he documented.

IRA FLATOW, host: For the rest of the hour, take a deep, cleansing breath for a look at the science of meditation, because this week, researchers say a certain form of meditation can actually change the wiring in your brain. Students who practice the meditation for just 11 hours over a period of a few weeks had changes in brain connectivity that could be seen on a brain scan. The work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Joining me now to talk more about those changes and what they mean is my guest, Michael Posner. He is a psychologist and adjunct professor at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. He’s also a professor emeritus at the University of Oregon in Eugene. He joins us from Eugene today. Thanks for being with us today.

Dr. MICHAEL POSNER (Psychologist, Weill Cornell Medical College): Thank you very much.

FLATOW: What kind of meditation are we talking about? You said in your paper that it’s not the kind that we practice here in the West.

Dr. POSNER: Well, it is to some extent. It’s a form of mindfulness meditation that was developed from traditional Chinese medicine by my colleague, Yi-Yuan Tang. And we don’t know how unique this form of meditation is, but it does have changes that occur within just a few days. So it’s possible to do a random assignment of subjects both to the meditation group and to a plausible control group, which in our case is relaxation training. And relaxation training is a common part of cognitive behavioral therapy as practiced in the West. So we have a pretty plausible control group. And we can ask, what are the differences between practicing a form of mindfulness meditation, IBMT, or integrated body-mind training, compared to the relaxation training?

And we’ve published a series of papers showing that there are strong behavioral changes that take place within just five days. And in this most recent paper, we found changes in the white matter, or the physical connectivity between a portion of the brain, which is important for self-regulation, and other parts of the frontal cortex and parts of the striatum and other parts of the brain.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Could you see behavioral changes in the actions of the people at all?

Dr. POSNER: Yes. We found, in this previous report, after only five days of training, about half hour a day – and this was done with Chinese students, but we’ve replicated it here in the U.S. – we found changes in their ability to attend. We found changes in mood. And we found changes in their reaction to stress. You know, we secrete a stress hormone, cortisol, under stressful conditions, perhaps like being on this program.

FLATOW: Oh, yeah.

Dr. POSNER: And the cortisol secretions were lessened, following five days of training by IBMT, more than they were by the relaxation training.

FLATOW: So this is different from that famous relaxation response we’ve talked about decades ago?

Dr. POSNER: Yes, it is different because the control group in this case is relaxation. And the experimental group, presumably, produces a brain state that does something over and above relaxation. It may be that the relaxation training requires a lot of attention, preparing to relax one muscle group versus another. And that leads to some additional struggle which interferes with getting into a brain state conducive to the kinds of behavioral results we found.

FLATOW: And I think the most fascinating part of this work is that you actually see structural changes in the brain from this.

Dr. POSNER: We used diffusion tensor imaging, which is a way of looking at the white matter of the brain. And we found with 11 hours of practice over about a month, IBMT changed the white matter connectivity as measured by fractional anisotropy, the diffusion of water along the pathway…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. POSNER: …so as to produce a more efficient connection between the anterior cingulate and these other areas.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We have a tweet coming in. It says, are these changes all good? Are there any drawbacks? Do they make anyone less alert or less productive or less attentive after these were done?

Dr. POSNER: We haven’t found any reduced performance. Everything really has been either no change – some of the attentional networks do not change, but the most important attentional network, the one that is involved in self-regulation and control, does change. So we’ve either found favorable changes or, in some cases, there are no differences from relaxation.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Talking with Michael Posner on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I’m Ira Flatow. Can I do this myself? And where do I go to find out how to do this?

Dr. POSNER: We don’t have any commercially available practitioners trained in this particular method, and we don’t know how unique this method is. We have been able to get changes very quickly, but IBMT is like other mindfulness meditation, and there have been many favorable reports – perhaps not quite as well controlled because they take longer – about mindfulness meditation in general.

So people can try that, and we hope to make available more material on our particular method over the coming months as we get more experimental evidence.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. If you do anything over and over again, wouldn’t that also create some changes in the brain wiring?

Dr. POSNER: It does. We have also done training, what I call attention training, which is actually practicing particular attentional networks over and over again. That’s the most frequent way of getting change, and it does produce changes. But it doesn’t produce as widespread a kind of change as this IBMT does, which is actually not practicing a particular network. But we believe relaxing into a brain state, which, when repeated over and over again, allows you to carry that brain state around even when you’re not practicing the meditation.

And for example, after 30 days of training, the subjects show a lowered stress level as measured by cortisol secretion even at baseline, even without practicing more meditation or being in the meditative state.

FLATOW: So this doesn’t extinguish itself after a while. It hung around?

Dr. POSNER: We don’t know that. This was tested immediately after the 30 days of training. We don’t know how long it lasts. That’s part of our current protocols to try to see how long it lasts. It may not matter as much because this kind of training is not difficult to continue.

FLATOW: Can you give us an idea since we don’t know anything or where to find it commercially? Can you describe the training a bit for us?

Dr. POSNER: Yes, this is done by a trained practitioner using a standardized CD, which tries to get the person to relax and keep his mind in the present state.

To do that, we use imagery. We use control of breath – all pretty standard meditation components. And they’re combined together to produce the kind of results that we have.

FLATOW: So there’s no chanting of a mantra or anything like that?

Dr. POSNER: No, there’s no particular focus on any kind of verbal process, just keeping the mind in the present state but preventing it from wandering around. And that seems to relax the person into a favorable brain state for processing information.

FLATOW: So do you sit there and close your mind and concentrate on one thing or whatever comes into your mind? Or how do you direct that?

Dr. POSNER: Well, you try to not get your mind wandering from the present state…

FLATOW: Uh-huh.

Dr. POSNER: …do have to do – produce some control of breath and some control in that way. But otherwise, you keep your mind focused but not on a particular thing, just in the present.

FLATOW: And what do you call this kind of…

Dr. POSNER: Integrated body-mind training…

FLATOW: So if I…

Dr. POSNER: …because it affects both the body and the mind.

FLATOW: Yeah. So if I Google this, could I find a description in how to do this?

Dr. POSNER: You could, yes. Yuan Tang, who’s the creator of this, has a website, and you could get that through Google. Some of it will be available in English. Other would be available in Chinese.

FLATOW: Well, I’m going to go take a look at it myself. Thank you, Dr. Posner.

Dr. POSNER: Okay. Thank you.

FLATOW: Thanks for coming on. Michael Posner is a psychologist and adjunct professor at Weill Cornell Medical College here in New York, also professor emeritus at the University of Oregon in Eugene.


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