College and stress are ubiquitous. You'll be hard pressed to find anyone at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who hasn’t felt the crushing weight of stress from life, classes and current events. Mindfulness practices, such as yoga and mediation, are often touted as ways to relieve stress and anxiety.
In recent years, publications such as the Harvard Business Review and Forbes reported that mindfulness training can actually change your brain structure. These findings are based on previous research into the eight week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. This MBSR study, however, was recently disproved by a team of UW-Madison researchers from the Center for Healthy Minds
In a paper published on May 20 in Science Advances, the Center for Healthy Minds team, led by Richard J. Davidson, found that short term mindfulness training has no effect on brain structure and gray matter density. This discovery contradicts several views regarding MBSR as a therapeutic treatment.
Emerging therapeutic treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, can change the gray matter distribution in our brain. Gray matter comprises the outermost layer of our brain and is responsible for controlling our movements, forming memories and regulating emotions. Traumatic experiences can change the density and distribution of gray matter in our brains, oftentimes negatively affecting our brain processes. If MBSR has measurable changes to gray matter, like previous research indicates, it may be a useful way of treating chronic conditions such as PTSD, chronic migraines and depression.
Unfortunately, while an eight-week MBSR program may help with your anxiety and stress, it will not change your brain structure, according to the university study. This brings the question of how the original study came to the conclusion that MBSR changed gray matter density.
The sample size and sampling technique were one of the core reasons why the original study came to this conclusion. In the original study, 17 participants were selected from a population that was already enrolled in an eight-week MBSR class. Instead of comparing against a control group, these 17 individuals were given an MRI scan before and after the MBSR program. These brain scans were compared in order to gauge structural brain changes pre-treatment and post-treatment.
The small sample size and participant pool may have skewed the results of the original study. Behavioral scientist and first author on the Davidson team’s study, Tammi Krall, asserts that because the participants in the original study chose to enroll in MBSR prior to the study, MBSR may have an increased benefit when compared to the healthy population in the study. This, combined with the small sample size, may have produced the conclusion that MBSR does in fact change brain structure.
Davidson’s team, by contrast, drew from meditation naive participants who had not been enrolled in MBSR training. A total of 263 participants were studied across two trials. Participants were sorted into three groups: the control group, which did not receive any mindfulness training, a group enrolled in MBSR and a group enrolled in the Health Enhancement Program (HEP), a non-mindfulness based self help program. At the end of the trial, the team found that there was no significant difference between the MBSR group, the HEP group and the control group.
The Davidson team has theories as to why this kind of short term mindfulness training doesn’t specifically change brain structure. MBSR doesn’t target just one part of your brain. Rather, it spans a broad range of psychological areas including attention, compassion and emotion. Because this training spans such a wide range, it is hard to see changes across the whole brain. Additionally, these changes may be unique to individuals, making it hard to compare. Training that targets specific parts of the brain, however, may have effects on brain structure.
This research is just the tip of the iceberg, and we really don’t know a lot about how meditation and mindfulness affect our brain.
“We are still in the stages of research on the effects of meditation training on the brain,” Davidson stated. “There is much to be discovered.”