Different types of meditation come with different benefits: Video lay summary

Medicine and Health Sciences: Neuroscience

So, what’s all this hype with meditation anyway? Does it really improve our attention and social and emotional intelligence, to help us adapt to our fast-paced and mentally demanding world?

And what are the different ways to meditate, and do these so-called ‘contemplative’ practices come with different benefits for us and our relationships with others?

In their study Trautwein and colleagues looked into these questions in greater detail.

They suggest there are broadly three different types of meditation, which they labelled as “Presence”, “Affect” and “Perspective. These can overlap a bit, are usually combined in current treatments, and may change or complement each other. The idea is these practices may literally change our brain networks or ‘wiring’ in different ways. This ability to adapt is important for our mental functioning!

1. Presence then is about training our attention to slow down and notice the present moment more or “mindfulness”, which includes our own thinking and feelings but also sensations in our bodies (or “interoception”).

2. Affect, is about connecting more with our own thoughts and feelings that have
qualities of care and tenderness, gratitude and consideration directed towards others and ourselves, or what is called “lovingkindness”, “self-compassion” or the “affective dyad”. They also say it’s also about being a bit more prosocial generally, as well as learning to deal with difficult thoughts and feelings by accepting them.

3. And Perspective, is about improving our ability to have thoughts about our thoughts or feelings and sensations, known as ‘meta-awareness’, as well as holding in mind how we and others might view things, known in the business as ‘mentalising’ or ‘theory of mind’.

Based on these types of mediation, the authors developed three separate, three-month long training modules, which for 191 healthy adults, ran one straight after another (compared to 30 healthy adults All included a three-day intensive retreat, 13 weekly group sessions with teachers each lasting 2.5 hours. The teachers set daily home tasks or practices (e.g., 5 times a week) on a custom website and smartphone app.

In the Presence module, people were asked to focus their attention on sensations of breathing, and to re-focus their attention whenever it wandered off, but also to scan the body focussing on various parts going from their head to toes. Later exercises introduced the same kind of practices but across the senses: sound, vision, taste, and walking.

The Affect module encouraged people to connect with the feeling and motivation of love and care, such as imagining a baby, a cute animal, a close caring friend etc., a place of safety and comfort, or focusing on feelings of warmth in the body. They were then asked to direct these feelings towards themselves, and others and mentally repeat phrases related to this: “May you be happy, “May you be healthy”, “May you be safe” and “May you live with ease.”

Then in pairs, people were asked in turn to think about situations from their day, to consider things that were difficult and when they were grateful. As each person shared their situations and connected with how it felt focusing more on their own feelings and bodily reactions without over-analysing it, the other person listened closely to what the other had to say without giving spoken or non-verbal feedback to improve empathic listening.

Finally, the Perspective module involved noticing thoughts as simply thoughts that are completely natural, but not necessarily reflections of reality. This included labelling thoughts as “thinking” and was also about learning to let them come and go without getting caught-up in them.

Then once again in pairs, people were supported in noticing different parts of their selves, where in turn each person described a situation during the day from the viewpoint of a particular inner part (e.g., anger) to ‘de-couple’ this experience from reality. Again, like the Affect module, the other person would listen in without giving feedback but instead try to work out “who is speaking” in terms of the inner part being expressed. Later exercises also involved people trying to take the viewpoint of people who they struggle to get on with in their daily lives (Donald Trump), the role thoughts play and how these may be different for others, and how understanding others’ behaviour is not the same as approving of it.

First, the 191 healthy adults who received all trainings in sequence were compared to 30 healthy adults [191 healthy people who got all trainings Vs. 30 healthy people who got nothing] who did not receive any training at all to make sure changes were not down to time alone or chance. Second, a further 81 healthy people completed only the “Affect” training module and were compared to a further 30 people who also received no training at all [82 healthy people Vs. 30 people who got nothing] – this was mostly due to practical challenges with people taking part in the study and access to brain scanners. Other than the “Affect module” only group, all people were tested on the same sound measures, including changes in scores of computer tests of attention, compassion and theory of mind completed while inside a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) brain scanner, but also other measures of the nervous system and biology. These were taken over roughly the same time scale on 6 occasions: Once before the training programmes started, three times before and after each of the training modules taking them up to 9 months, and twice again at 4.5 and 10 months after the trainings had ended.

The study showed that when comparing the different modules:

• People’s attention improved most consistently after Presence training.
• Compassion (but interestingly also attention) was boosted most consistently after Affective training
• And Theory of mind partly improved only after Perspective training, but the authors say this requires further testing as differences were quite small.
• This means that specific mediation trainings can potentially benefit different types of mental functioning when compared to receiving no training at all. So, whilst these skills have the potential to improve our general well-being and relationships, these findings help us to consider how we might target treatments for people with different psychiatric and psychological conditions. Specifically, those that come with attention problems (including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety), self-criticism (seen a lot in depression), and difficulties with empathising with others (often seen in autism, psychosis, and some forms of dementia).
• Although all research should be taken with a pinch of salt, and clearly there is scope for doing more through studies into this subject, these finding all seem very promising and have some potentially important applications… So, in the meantime, maybe hop onto your yoga mat and get meditating!


Title of lay summary Different types of meditation come with different benefits: Video lay summary
Lay Summary Author(s)

Dr Anthony Harrison

Vetting Professional Dr. Anja Harrison
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Title of the original peer-reviewed published article: Differential benefits of mental training types for attention, compassion, and theory of mind
Journal Name: Cognition
Year of publication: 2020

Fynn-Mathis Trautwein

Philipp Kanske

Anne Böckler

Tania Singer

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No conflict of interest reported

Original Article language: English
Article Type: Other longitudinal study (including survival analysis)
What licence permission does the original e-print have? For more information on this please see our permissions video): Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

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