When you think about meditation, you probably imagine someone splayed cross-legged with their eyes closed, perhaps while chanting. If you’ve tried your hand at meditation, you might even think about sitting quietly while focusing on your breath and the way your body feels. But just like there are many ways to exercise, there are many ways to meditate. And just like different exercises target different body parts, every technique targets something different in your brain.
Train Your Brain
In 2017, two studies from the ReSource Project at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany were published in Science Advances. For the studies, researchers trained 300 volunteers in three meditation techniques. Then, they analyzed the effects of each technique as the volunteers practiced them regularly for three months apiece, one three-month period after the other.
Here’s a rundown of how each technique works, and what it did to the volunteers’ brains.
For this technique, which the researchers called “presence” meditation, people focused their attention simply on how it felt to breathe, gently guiding their focus back whenever it wandered. They also performed a “body scan” exercise, where they focused on the sensation and presence of each part of the body, one after the other, from the tips of the toes to the top of the head. They used these same mindfulness techniques in various other activities, such as focusing on how it felt to walk or zeroing in on sights, smells, and tastes.
One of the studies used MRI to assess the differences in brain structures after the training. Mindfulness meditation was associated with a thicker prefrontal cortex and parietal lobe, both of which are linked to attention control.
The researchers called this technique “loving-kindness” meditation. Compassion meditation is all about connecting with the feeling of love and care for something or someone else. In each session, volunteers began by imagining themselves and then a “benefactor” — someone who does them good, like a parent or a romantic partner — and extend feelings of love, kindness, and good wishes to both themselves and that benefactor.
Over the next several sessions, they extended those feelings to someone they felt neutral about, then to someone they had “difficulties” with, and finally to all beings on Earth. “To stabilize and foster experiences of loving-kindness,” the researchers wrote, “we instructed participants to mentally repeat phrases such as ‘May you be happy,’ ‘May you be healthy,’ ‘May you be safe,’ and ‘May you live with ease.'” They also focused on accepting their emotions and practicing forgiveness and self-compassion.
This portion also included a partner exercise. In the exercise, one person would tell the other person about something they experienced that day that was either difficult or made them feel grateful. The storyteller focused on how they felt at the time without interpreting the situation, and the listener listened attentively without giving any feedback. Then the roles were reversed.
After it was all over, the volunteers’ brains showed increases in the limbic system, which processes emotions. They also had a boost to their anterior insula, which helps you consciously identify your emotions.
In the “perspective module,” volunteers performed a solo exercise designed to help them observe their own thoughts as mental events instead of representations of reality. In the first phase, they trained to give their thoughts labels like “me” or “other,” “past” or “future,” or “positive” or “negative.” As they became more experienced, they eventually just observed the comings and goings of thoughts without involving themselves in them.
The perspective module also had a partner exercise. First, all of these volunteers learned about the Internal Family Systems (IFS) approach, which divides the mind into subpersonalities or “inner parts,” — for example, “managers” are parts that try to keep you in control of every situation, “exiles” are parts that try to protect you from pain, and “firefighters” are parts that react when exiles are activated in order to extinguish bad feelings.
After that, the partner exercise was a lot like the one used for compassion except that the stories were told from the perspective of one of these “inner parts” without telling the listener which one — the listener had to figure it out from the story. That helped the storyteller take a bird’s-eye view of their own experiences, and the listener to infer the perspective of the storyteller.
This perspective-taking training was associated with thickening in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, the left occipital region, and the middle temporal gyrus — all of which are linked to Theory of Mind, the ability to understand that others have beliefs, intentions, and perspectives that are different from yours and to infer what they might be.
Different Exercises For Different Strengths
Lead researcher Tania Singer laments the fact that people put all of these cognitive exercises into a big bucket labeled “meditation.” “It’s like asking a sport expert ‘what does sport do to your body’. The expert would say, do you mean swimming or horse-riding? You can imagine mental training being as complex,” she told New Scientist. So if you’re considering starting a meditation regimen, don’t just try any old technique. Think about what you want to accomplish, then find a meditation method designed to build those skills.