The Fast Track to the Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
Think for a few seconds about meditation.
Some of you might have envisioned a Tibetan Buddhist monk perched cross-legged against a tranquil backdrop. Or perhaps you reflected on meditation’s meteoric rise in popularity in recent years, wondering if what might seem to be little more than a New Age stress ball is in fact no more than a passing fad.
However, if you habitually meditate, I suspect your thoughts were far more positive. If you’re an experienced meditator, you’ve probably found that your practice has markedly improved your ability to regulate your responses to your emotions. You may have also benefited from improved mood, resilience, and focus. Perhaps you’ve noticed effects on your behaviors – how you eat, how well you sleep, and your ability to abstain from addictive substances. Or maybe you find that aches, pains, and infections simply don’t bother you quite so much now.
There’s been a surge of scientific research into meditation in the last few years, and we now know that meditation consistently leads to numerous health benefits, as shown by all of those reviews that I just linked to. Most studies have focused on a type of meditation known as mindfulness, which trains the ability to non-judgmentally pay attention to the contents of consciousness – sensations, sounds, thoughts, and so on.
My guess is that most of you reading this are interested in whether you can sharpen your minds by using one of the dozens of mindfulness meditation apps that are now available. Honestly, we still know little about the effects of mindfulness training delivered in this way though. My curiosity was therefore piqued when Wendy Suzuki, a prominent neuroscientist from New York University, recently published an experiment on the effects of online mindfulness training in meditation newbies. If you’re still undecided about whether mindfulness is for you, I hope her team’s results nudge you to give it a go.
Here’s what they did:
Is eight weeks of online training enough to reap the benefits of mindfulness meditation?
Suzuki and her colleagues recruited healthy 18- to 45-year-old adults who didn’t habitually meditate*. These participants were split into one of two group for eight weeks.
One group was instructed to repeat a 13-minute guided meditation** each day (from this site).
The other group was told to listen to a different 13-minute section of a podcast each day (from this site). Podcasts were about science and philosophy, not meditation.
To access the meditation or podcasts, respectively, the participants had to log into a website, allowing the scientists to track compliance.
The participants underwent a battery of tests before the intervention, after four weeks of the intervention, and at the end of the eight-week intervention. These included questions assessing sleep, mood, anxiety, and fatigue, as well as tests of memory, the ability to distinguish between patterns, executive function (those cognitive processes needed to select and monitor behaviors aimed at achieving goals), and attention.
To understand whether meditation affects responses to social stress, the participants underwent the Trier Social Stress Test at the end of the intervention. This is one of those tests that makes some people squirm just reading about it. The test gives participants five minutes to prepare for a five-minute presentation on why they are the best candidate for their “dream job”. They deliver this to two pokerfaced observers, and the participants are misleadingly told that their presentations will be recorded for review by trained judges. After this, the participants had to sequentially subtract 13 from 1,022 for five minutes, and if they made mistakes they had to begin again.
To determine whether meditation affected stress, the scientists also measured participants’ levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, at baseline, after four weeks, after eight weeks, and before and after the social stress test. Participants’ anxiety was assessed before and after the stress test too.
Eight weeks of online meditation training improves multiple aspects of mood and cognitive function
After four weeks of training there were no differences between groups. After eight weeks, however, the meditators experienced improved mood (reduced anger and confusion, specifically), reduced fatigued, and improved short-term memory. Not only that, the meditators had lower anxiety responses to the social stress test. The only difference the podcast listeners experienced was improved sleep quality***.
Just eight weeks of online mindfulness meditation training leads to substantial improvements in mood and cognitive function
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Meditating on this study
No previous study has reported that such brief meditation training enhances some of the metrics tested. I find it especially remarkable that the scientists found these effects when the intervention was so crude – recall that the participants repeated a single meditation throughout the eight weeks of training.
One of the many things that I love about meditation is that I can tune my practice to hone certain skills. If I want to be more compassionate, I can increase the number of mettā (loving-kindness meditation) sessions that I do. If I want to improve my attention, I can focus more on ānāpānasati (focused-attention meditation) sessions. You get the idea. We know that these different practices result in distinct electrophysiological signatures in people’s brains, so I expect we’d see more global benefits from a better rounded training program than the one in Suzuki’s team’s study.
Related to this, we can’t infer much from this study about how people would respond to other meditation training programs. Doing so would be analogous to putting people on an endurance exercise training program, finding that it enhances cardiorespiratory fitness, and then inferring that a resistance training program must also enhance cardiorespiratory fitness, purely because it is also a type of exercise. And we of course don’t know whether experienced meditators would have responded similarly to the novices studied in this experiment – as is true of exercise, perhaps habitual meditators need more intensive training to continue to progress.
Some things about the design of this study may have precluded the scientists from answering the questions they wanted to ask.
As one example, how much cortisol our adrenal glands produce should vary dramatically each day (as I discuss in our courses on how our bodies’ clocks work, which are available to Pro members). But the times at which the researchers collected cortisol samples weren’t consistent.
As another example, some of the tests may have simply been too easy to detect an effect of the training – if people are already answering correctly 95% of the time, there’s little room left for improvement.
And as a final example, people who choose to participate in a study about meditation may systematically differ from people who don’t. As I elaborated in this blog, mindset can have potent effects on biology, so simply buying in to the notion that meditation is healthy is bound to amplify its beneficial effects, if they exist.
This study showed that a brief and basic mindfulness meditation training program delivered online enhanced multiple aspects of mood, emotion regulation, and cognitive function in healthy young adults. It adds to an increasingly persuasive body of evidence showing that even brief mindfulness meditation training can lead to changes in brain wiring similar to that produced by long-term meditation, and that online mindfulness training improves general and psychological health. Put simply, mindfulness training seems to be among the best activities you can do for your brain.
In one of the lessons in his Waking Up app (by far my favourite meditation app to date), Sam Harris said something that has stuck with me: Mindfulness training can be like a Large Hadron Collider for your mind – as you become proficient, your practice can unveil fundamental truths about the nature of your consciousness. Given that your mind is the essence of how you experience the world, I hope you give mindfulness meditation a go at some point. Doing so will not only be good for you, it will be good for those around you too.
*People who meditated more than once a week for the prior three months were excluded.
**The participants listened to a 17-minute introductory meditation during their first lab visit.
***You don’t need to worry about these points, so feel free to disregard them. Nevertheless, I want to mention them for the detail-oriented among you:
The researchers interpret their results as the meditators experiencing lower sleep quality after the training. They do so because the group*time interaction for sleep quality was significant. (The researchers repeat this type of interpretation in several places in the manuscript, but I haven’t mentioned these in this blog.) However, the subsequent tests of the nature of this interaction really showed that sleep improved in the podcast group and didn’t change in the meditators.
So, why the difference between groups?
The scientists found that the meditation group completed more sessions between 8 PM and 3 AM than the podcast group. From this they infer that night-time meditation may have impaired sleep quality. But please note that the strongest evidence available to date shows that meditation tends to enhance sleep quality. And remember too that the meditation group felt less fatigued after training, which somewhat contradicts the sleep data.
I mention all this because while the finding of a difference in self-reported sleep quality between groups doesn’t strike me as being especially important (sleep was assessed in a valid but quite rudimentary way), the researchers clearly felt it was important, for they then included changes in sleep quality scores as covariates in their statistical analyses.
When analyzing data, it’s preferable to stick precisely to the analysis plan you come up with in advance of the study. Otherwise, you increase the risk of generating false-positive results by dredging through your data. This study was already at high risk of false-positives, for it tested a small number of participants for a large number of outcomes.
Case in point: The scientists did an additional exploratory analysis in which they tried to determine whether the positive effect of meditation on emotion regulation in the social stress test predicted the effects of meditation on mood and/or cognition. This of course involved yet more testing, and by this point in reading the manuscript I was left scratching my head a little. I don’t mean to suggest any foul play, but I’d be uncomfortable if I didn’t mention these considerations.
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