science

UW-Madison mindfulness game contributes to growing understanding of mindfulness benefits

A video game, designed and tested by UW-Madison affiliates, facilitating meditation for middle schoolers contributes to a larger conversation on the benefits of mindfulness.

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It’s amazing to consider doing something as simple as focusing on your breath can improve your wellbeing and cognition — it seems like it would be intuitive, yet it is often overlooked. 

Breathing, along with functions such as the heartbeat, is regulated by our autonomic nervous system and it's not something we generally think to consciously exercise — or even that we can. 

As outlined by a press release from Wisconsin News, researchers at the Center for Healthy Minds here at UW-Madison, in collaboration with the University of California-Irvine, have designed and tested a game for middle schoolers to practice mindfulness. 

The game involves counting breaths and tapping on a screen. A player journeys through tranquil scenes featuring ancient ruins or outer space, tapping once per breath while counting the first four breaths and tapping twice every fifth breath. Players advance when they count sequences of breaths accurately.  

To test the effectiveness of the game, the researchers conducted an experiment with middle schoolers over the course of two weeks for 30 minutes a day using two groups. One was asked to play “Fruit Ninja,” as the control group; the other, being the treatment group, played the mindfulness game, “Tenacity.”

Their results indicated changes in two parts of the brain that are essential in attention, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the left inferior parietal cortex. Participants who played “Tenacity” performed better on an attention task in the lab after the weeks of play, while those who played “Fruit Ninja” had no change.

The UW-affiliated study involving the mindfulness video game contributes to a growing scientific consensus on the positive results of mindfulness on the brain and body, with an emphasis on using novel ways to teach mindfulness to younger children.

Various possible benefits of meditation have been the subject of inquiry numerous times by different research groups around the globe. Most of these studies investigating mindfulness use diverse programs that involve yoga or stretching which creates some gray area when determining causality.

A study published in 2018 involved 32 participants split into two groups — one meditating regularly and the other performing muscle relaxation regularly. After a period of eight weeks, each participant was asked to observe moving discs on a computer screen without getting distracted by the other discs. This experiment was conducted a few days before and after the eight weeks. The accuracy of the meditation group rose about 9 percent — a statistically significant change — while the muscle relaxation group had no change.

They also measured participant brain activity and found that a certain signal in the brain involving visual attention was reduced by 88 percent. From this, scientists determined that the brain networks used in the tracking of the discs became more refined, and participants were able to carry out the same task with less effort and resources. 

This means meditation actually made the brain more efficient. Around the same time this data came out, a Harvard study found meditation was a remedy for people suffering from depression, as well as other mental disorders. As this data becomes more widespread, we can expect to see a mainstream implementation of meditation for not only folx suffering, but also folx looking to improve their mental adeptness.

The practice of focusing on our breathing is one of the most accessible ways to meditate. And meditation is a way to hone mindfulness. Mindfulness is described as the process of paying attention to the present moment.

According to Sholto Radford, a researcher at the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice at Bangor University, one of the biggest misconceptions of being mindful is that the goal of it is to banish thoughts, or to “clear your mind.” But in reality, we cannot eliminate our thoughts, and trying to would be frustrating and futile.

Instead of trying to eliminate our thoughts, “Through mindfulness we can learn to relate differently to our thoughts, observing them with awareness, not taking them too seriously or feeling them to be always true,” said Radford in a Women’s Health magazine article, outlining misconceptions of mindfulness. 

In other words, rather than being immersed in our thoughts, practicing mindfulness seeks to be “outside of our thoughts,” — aware of them, but merely watching them pass by, not latching on.

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