An entire “neurobic” subculture has cropped up based on the idea of exercising your brain to sharpen mental acuity and encourage a range of health benefits. Now two new studies are giving a boost to research that demonstrates how certain mental training routines promote structural changes to the brain, improve social skills, and reduce stress.
Both reports, published in the journal Science Advances, are part of the large-scale ReSource Project — a unique study on the effects of mental training on the brain, body, and behavior — overseen by Tania Singer, a professor in the department of social neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute of Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig.
People who meditate have long claimed that their practice leaves them with a feeling of lasting well-being and improves various aspects of their physical and mental health. Research into the general neurological and physical effects of mindfulness has largely borne this out. But until now, the nuts and bolts of these processes — the correlation of specific meditation practices with particular behaviors and brain regions — have remained somewhat fuzzy.
While general brain plasticity is well-documented, with previous studies showing that brain structure can be changed by something as simple as learning to juggle, until now little has been known about the plasticity of the social brain.
The new studies are the first to dig into the specifics, post-doctorate researcher Sofie Valk told Seeker. Valk was lead author on the first paper, which looks at structural brain changes following daily 30-minute daily brain exercises.
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“Our whole goal is to decipher the different processes that underlie mindfulness,” she remarked. “You cannot do general training and expect everything to improve. If you want to play the violin, you have to study violin and not piano.”
The second paper looked at stress responses following the same exercises. It showed that daily mental exercises focusing on social intelligence significantly cut levels of the stress hormone cortisol in response to socially stressful situations, like performing tough math problems in front of an audience.
The studies put 200 participants aged from 20 to 55 who had never practiced meditation or mindfulness through three three-month exercise modules. All exercises were performed six days a week for a total of 30 minutes a day.
In the first module participants learned mindfulness-type techniques that focused on attention and “interoception” — recognizing your internal physical responses, such as breathing, hunger, and heart rate.
The second module focused on “socio-affective competencies,” like compassion, gratitude, and dealing with difficult emotions. Subjects were put into pairs and asked to take turns of five minutes to relate an event from their day that was both positive and negative, Valk explained.
“For example, I could tell you: ‘Today I moved to another city, it’s super exciting to start somewhere new… but on the other hand I’ve lost my friends,’” she offered.
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The idea of the exercise is to develop listening skills, empathy, and gratitude, and to learn to consider your own experiences in a more emotionally balanced way.
The final module trained “socio-cognitive abilities,” which include self-awareness and the ability to see things from other people’s perspectives. In randomly-assigned pairs, participants performed exercises based on a psychological theory that one’s conscious self is made up of multiple elements with discrete roles, such as an “inner manager” or “inner child.”
“An inner part could be something like an inner judge, someone who is always being very judgmental of yourself,” explained Valk. “Your [whole] self is the like the conductor of the orchestra of these inner parts.”
Subjects had to relate an experience from the perspective of one of these voices, and their partner had to guess which “inner part” was speaking.
Valk collected MRIs of the participants’ brains at the beginning of the nine-month study and again after each of the training modules, and performed tests to measure participants’ attention and emotional and social intelligence.
Her team found that particular brain structures changed significantly in the participants, depending on which training technique was practiced.
After the mindfulness-based attention training, Valk and her team observed changes in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is related to attention and executive decision-making. At the same time, the participants performed better in tests measuring their attention spans.
But their capacity for compassion, or to consider different perspectives, had not improved. Only after the second and third modules, which focused on social skills, had people sharpened these abilities. Simultaneously, structural changes appeared in the areas of the brain that govern these social skills.
“Increases in compassion correlated with increases in the insula, a region known to play a role in representing and integrating affective signals into a feeling,” Valk noted. Additionally, she said, “we observed changes in a temporo-parietal junction to relate to improvements in perspective-taking. Previous studies have related this region to exactly that function.”
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The second study looked at whether certain brain exercises could reduce psychosocial stress — that is, stress that arises from interacting with other people.
Veronika Engert, a clinical psychologist at the Max Planck Institute and the second study’s lead author, describes psychosocial stress experiences as “novel, uncontrollable, unpredictable and a threat to the ego.” Eventually, she told Seeker, they can accumulate to produce chronic social stress.
After the training modules, the participants underwent a psychosocial stress test that mimicked these experiences. They were asked to give a short “job talk” and do difficult mental arithmetic in front of an audience.
The research team measured their heart rates, stress-related immune markers, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol in response to these tasks. They were also asked to self-report how stressed out they felt.
Participants self-reported as being less stressed after all three mental training modules. But only the second two, which honed social skills, had a concrete effect on the body’s stress response. There was no change in their immune response, but the effect on cortisol levels was significant: after the social skills training exercises, participants’ secretion of the stress hormone diminished by up to 51 percent.
“We think that the regular self-disclosure and exposure to the potential evaluations of their… partners within the daily dyadic exercises may have ‘immunized’ participants against the fear of social shame and judgement by others,” Engert explained.
Engert said that these results demonstrated huge potential benefits to society and individuals.
“We plan to study the ReSource training in professions with an increased risk for burnout or depression,” she said, such as nurses or social workers.
That the brains and social intelligence of adults are still so malleable could be enormously positive, enthused Valk.
“I see tons of potential,” she said. “It’s really just the beginning of an exciting exploration to find ways to help people become more tolerant and social.”
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