Mental Training and Neuroplasticity
In the past decade, reports concerning the natural plasticity of the human brain have taken a spotlight in the media and popular imagination.
In the pursuit of neural plasticity nearly every imaginable specialization, from taxi drivers to Buddhist monks, has had their day in the scanner.
These studies reveal marked functional and structural neural differences between various populations of interest, and in doing so drive a wave of interest in harnessing the brain’s plasticity for rehabilitation, education, and even increasing intelligence (Green and Bavelier, 2008).
Under this new “mental training” research paradigm investigators are now examining what happens to brain and behavior when novices are randomized to a training condition, using longitudinal brain imaging.
We set out to investigate one particularly popular intervention, mindfulness meditation, while controlling for these factors.
Mindfulness meditation has enjoyed a great deal of research interest in recent years. This popularity is largely due to promising findings indicating good efficacy of meditation training (MT) for emotion processing and cognitive control (Sedlmeier et al., 2012).
Clinical studies indicate that MT may be particularly effective for disorders that are typically non-responsive to cognitive-behavioral therapy, such as severe depression and anxiety (Grossman et al., 2004; Hofmann et al., 2010).
Understanding the neural mechanism underlying such benefits remains difficult however, as most existing investigations are cross-sectional in nature or depend upon inadequate “wait-list” passive control groups.
We addressed these difficulties in an investigation of functional and structural neural plasticity before and after a 6-week active-controlled mindfulness intervention.
To control demand, social support, teacher enthusiasm, and participant motivation we constructed a “shared reading and listening” active control group for comparison to MT. By eliciting daily “experience samples” regarding participants’ motivation to practice and minutes practiced, we ensured that groups did not differ on common motivational confounds.