Different Mindfulness Practices Change the Brain in Different Ways: Find Your Optimal Practice Based on Your Goals

Research shows that mental training through mindful practice and meditation can actually change not just the function, but the structure of your brain. Just like different types of exercising strengthen different parts of the body, for example, sprinting can build different muscles than lifting weights would, specific mental practices can activate different parts of the brain.

At the Max Planck Institute in Germany, researchers set out to measure how brain structure might change as a result of different forms of mindful practice. Study participants completed training in different types of meditation skills: attention (“Presence”), compassion (“Affect”), and social intelligence (“Perspective”). Their three-month training program included a 3-day intensive retreat, weekly group instruction, and daily home practice.

Here’s what the study tells us about the best type of meditation to meet your goals:

  • If you want to increase focus – Do “Presence” training, which emphasizes introspective awareness through meditation and walking meditations, body scanning exercises, and more. After three months of presence training, participants had a significantly greater thickness in the anterior prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex, which are associated with attention and executive function.
  • If you want to be more compassionate – Do “Affect” training, or practicing compassion through loving-kindness meditation. This training increased participant ability to show loving feelings toward self and others, and cultivated skills of compassion, acceptance, and empathic listening. After three months of affect training, participants had a greater thickness in the brain’s right insula to the temporal pole which is related to empathy, compassion, and social regulation.
  • If you want to increase your social intelligence – Do “Perspective” training, which involves observing thoughts during meditation, labeling mental events (like judging), categorizing thoughts (such as self/other, positive/negative). The study also had this training group practice viewing experiences from other people’s eyes and reflecting how it differed from their own. After three months of perspective training, participants experienced greater thickness in the left insula to the temporal pole, which is associated with perspective taking and Theory of Mind (ability to differentiate between yourself and others perspective, but still being able to appreciate other beliefs).

Results from the brain imaging confirmed that changes in brain structure were directly related to the form of mental training practiced. This is groundbreaking because it shows that capacities like compassion, perspective taking, and other forms of social and emotional intelligence can be developed. Research has also shown that mindfulness can enhance human performance in terms of cognitive performance, physical health, brain health, emotional well-being, quality of life, and situational awareness and attention.

The fact that mindfulness improves parts of the brain that people once assumed to be only biologically given to you proves that mindfulness is not just a trend or a “nice-to-know” skill, but a “need-to-have” tool. This also proves that the type of mindfulness instruction you receive matters. You can choose different mindfulness practices based on your goals.

There is no one way to practice mindfulness, but hopefully reading this has given you a few ideas. All that is left to do is to take the first step. Practice with us today!

About the Author:
Sonia Dhingra is a rising high school senior and an intern at Mastermind Meditation. She has spent the last two summers interning with the Stress Solutions team at the Brain Performance Institute (part of the UT Dallas Center for BrainHealth). In her free time, she enjoys practicing photography and piano.

About Mastermind: Mastermind provides research-driven mindfulness and emotional intelligence learning for corporations, nonprofits and individuals across the U.S., including national brands like American Airlines, United Way, Peloton and FedEx. Mastermind’s science-based approach is designed to support mental wellbeing and build focus, awareness, compassion and connectivity that help us all build stronger, healthier lives and relationships. For more information visit MastermindMeditate.com.