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Mindfulness training improves mental resilience

From a young age, individuals are taught the importance of being aware of their external environment, yet the significance of attuning to one’s internal environment often receives less attention. Neuroscientists are now increasingly exploring how mindfulness training can impact a wide range of psychological aspects, from depression and memory to stress levels and aging. 

The goal of ongoing research is to demystify the neural mechanisms that underlie these brain changes, providing clearer guidelines for individuals interested in incorporating mindfulness into their daily lives.

No short-cuts in mindfulness training 

“Attentional training is a mechanism by which you can train your brain,” said Erika Nyhus, a cognitive neuroscientist at Bowdoin College, who is chairing a session on new research findings in mindfulness at the annual Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS) meeting in Toronto.

“Work to understand the neural mechanisms at play in this mindfulness training show potential pathways toward enhanced cognition but there are no short-cuts. It takes practice.”

Predicting mental health benefits of mindfulness training 

The researchers presenting their latest work at CNS 2024 are excited about the potential benefits that mindfulness training can offer not only to individual practitioners but also to the scientific community’s understanding of cognition.

Their collective research points to the idea that differences in sensory and cognitive processing within our brains can predict mental health outcomes and may be improved through novel technological training methods.

One crucial aspect of mindfulness training involves enhancing interoception – the perception of the body’s internal states – which is pivotal in managing mood disorders such as depression. 

Acceptance of new sensations and emotions

“Interoception matters in depression because our emotions are made up of both visceral body sensations and our cognitive appraisals of these sensations that help us make sense of those feelings and put them into context,” explained Norman Farb, a psychologist at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

“For example, a fluttering in our belly could be judged as excitement or anxiety depending on our context and appraisal habits.”

Farb and his team are keen on deciphering how the brain processes these interoceptive signals. The findings suggest that mindfulness training focused on internal awareness can divert mental resources away from entrenched cognitive appraisal habits, facilitating the acceptance of new sensations and emotions.

This shift can significantly help individuals become unstuck from maladaptive self-perceptions and their interactions with the world.

Improving mental resilience 

A landmark neuroimaging study on vulnerability to depression relapse, published in the journal NeuroImage Clinical, provided significant insights. Farb and his colleagues identified a major predictor of depression trajectories: the extent to which individuals engage rather than inhibit sensory and motor processes.

“This result contrasts other neural indicators of depression as being driven by too much activity in regions supporting judgment and appraisal. And it points to the importance of maintaining sensation in times of stress as a sign of mental resilience,” Farb said.

Cognitive control and appraisal

Further research published in ENeuro focused on the mindfulness practice of attention to the  breath, which is a key aspect of mindfulness training. Farb and his team discovered that while attending to external senses activates specific brain regions like the visual cortex, focusing on one’s breath tends to reduce activity across the cerebral cortex, which is associated with cognitive control and appraisal. 

“This suggests that mindfulness exercises may first help people to use their attention to stop doing so much with their brains, providing relief from rumination and judgment,” he said. 

“It also has a fascinating implication for how interoception differs from the external senses: interoceptive processing may be continuously represented in the brain to regulate biological processes such as the breath or heartbeat. To detect it, we just need to quiet down.”

Mindfulness training and technology

On the technological front, David Ziegler, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), has been pioneering a digital meditation game called MediTrain, which is rooted in the principles of internal attention.

This app is designed based on extensive research into neuroplasticity and how the brain compensates for attentional control deficits. “It’s a personalized experience for every individual at every point in their training,” Ziegler explained.

At CNS 2024, Ziegler is presenting data from several studies utilizing MediTrain across different demographics, including young adults, aging adults, and adolescents who have experienced childhood neglect.

Most notably, a new study published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, involving healthy older adults found that the training not only improved attention but also reduced stress reactivity and lengthened telomeres, indicators of reduced cellular aging.

However, the researchers face the challenge of determining the optimal dosage of meditation needed to achieve beneficial effects – a question Ziegler believes technology is uniquely positioned to address. Plans are in motion for a large-scale, nationwide dose-response study of MediTrain that will assess its efficacy in thousands of older adults, utilizing the app’s fully mobile digital platform.

Enhancing cognitive function 

Both Nyhus and Farb, who are practitioners themselves, initially approached mindfulness with a degree of skepticism. 

Nyhus, inspired to explore this field further after participating in an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, will present findings from her research into the effects of mindfulness on episodic memory. “You see mindfulness training everywhere and don’t know if there is anything to it, but I was shocked to see the results we got in the lab,” she said.

By investigating the scientific underpinnings of mindfulness, these researchers hope to refine this practice and advocate for its use not only as a psychological tool but also as a means of enhancing overall cognitive function.


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