Short-term Mindfulness Training Doesn’t Reshape Brain

We have written a lot about mindfulness over the years. Learning to be more present in the moment can improve health in many ways. From managing stress, breaking habits, sleeping better to losing weight, mindfulness can enhance your daily life. But a review has found that claims that eight weeks of mindfulness training can change the structure of your brain are false.

While you can change your habits and outlook using mindfulness, claims that you can improve the volume of your prefrontal cortex in eight weeks are “frankly a lot of hype,” according to Dr. Richard Davidson of the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison. “That’s false,” he says.

Researchers used 200 healthy participants in the study. None of them had meditated before. They were all given MRI scans at the start of the study. Then they were sorted into three groups. There was a control group, a non-mindfulness-based well-being intervention group and a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) group.

During the study, the mindfulness group practiced yoga, meditation and body awareness. The other wellness group participated in music therapy, exercise and nutritional practices. At the end of the eight-week trial, everyone had a second MRI. No changes were seen in their brains.

None of that means there aren’t tangible benefits to mindfulness training. Your brain does not need to physically change for something to benefit you. If you engage with the practices and benefit from them, that’s enough. Mindfulness isn’t right for everyone. But, for some people, it can be a massive tool in getting on track and finding a healthy path forward. However, it does show you shouldn’t trust all the hype around it.    

We are still in the early stages of research on the effects of meditation training on the brain and there is much to be discovered,” said Dr. Davidson.

The prior study that this one is disproving was smaller. This one also only used healthy participants. That one used people who were looking for stress reduction techniques. The researchers think it could be that those people had more room for improvement and change.  

For people who need stress reduction, it’s possible it could make a change to the brain. That can’t be completely ruled out. And behavioral scientist and first author Tammi Kral points out, “the simple act of choosing to enroll in MBSR may be associated with increased benefit.”

The results of this study underscore two things we have written about time and again. Large studies are needed to confirm theories and what’s true for some people isn’t true for all. It’s possible that the first small study of stressed-out people did find physical changes in the brain after eight weeks of MBSR. But this new, large study with healthy people saw no changes. Having said that, while the brain might not change, mindfulness can be an excellent tool for some people, and we wouldn’t write it off without trying it.

Banner image: Jimmy Chang via Unsplash

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