Musical Training Increases Executive Brain Function in Children and Adults

People with musical training make better choices and their brains process information more efficiently.

People with musical training make better choices and their brains process information more efficiently.

Musical training can boost the executive brain function of both adults and children, according to new research.

Both the brains and behaviour of adult and child musicians were compared with non-musicians in the study by researchers at the Boston Children’s Hospital.

Fifteen musically trained children and 15 adult professional musicians were recruited and matched with non-musicians on a number of variables, like family income, IQ, parental education and so on.

They found that:

“Adult musicians compared to non-musicians showed enhanced  performance on measures of cognitive flexibility, working memory, and verbal fluency.

Musically trained children showed enhanced performance on measures of verbal fluency and processing speed…” (Zuk et al., 2014)

Collectively these skills are known by psychologists as ‘executive functioning’.

High levels of executive functioning are what allow people to make good choices, effective plans and be flexible when situations change.

It also enables them to process information quickly and efficiently.

Unsurprisingly these skills are strongly associated with academic achievement.

One of the study’s authors, Nadine Gaab, said:

“Since executive functioning is a strong predictor of academic achievement, even more than IQ, we think our findings have strong educational implications.

“While many schools are cutting music programs and spending more and more time on test preparation, our findings suggest that musical training may actually help to set up children for a better academic future.”

Along with these behavioural measures, the researchers also looked at activity in the brain.

They found enhanced activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex which are involved in how we switch efficiently between tasks.

Magic of music

Musical training has already been linked with a remarkable range of cognitive enhancements:

“Musicians have shown enhanced language skills compared to non-musicians across several domains, namely vocabulary knowledge, pitch processing in speech, selective attention for speech in noise, and prosody perception.

Perceptual abilities in the music domain have been shown to correlate with early reading skills and phonological processing in pre-readers and kindergarten-age children.

In addition, musical training has been demonstrated to significantly relate to academic performance, specifically reading ability and mathematical achievement.” (Zuk et al., 2014)

On top of these, this study provides good evidence for the powerful effects of music in enhancing the executive functioning of both children and adults.

Musical training can now be added to three other activities which have been shown to increase children’s executive functioning:

Nadine Gaab concludes:

“Our results may also have implications for children and adults who are struggling with executive functioning, such as children with ADHD or [the] elderly.

Future studies have to determine whether music may be utilized as a therapeutic intervention tools for these children and adults.”

Image credit: Will-travel

How The Brain Works During The Two Main Types of Meditation

During meditation the mind may wander, but is that necessarily a bad thing?

During meditation the mind may wander, but is that necessarily a bad thing?

A new study on what happens in the brain when you meditate finds that more thoughts and emotions may be processed in ‘non-directive’ forms of meditation.

All the different types of meditation can be split into two main types:

  • In non-directive types of meditation, people focus on their breathing or a sound, but also allow their mind to wander where it will.
  • In concentrative types of meditation, people try to focus closely on their breath, or something else, in order to suppress other thoughts and feelings they experience.

To examine the differences, a Norwegian study had some meditators practising concentrative meditation and others non-directive meditation, while their brains were scanned (Xu et al., 2014).

One of the study’s authors, Svend Davanger, explained the results:

“The study indicates that nondirective meditation allows for more room to process memories and emotions than during concentrated meditation.”

“This area of the brain has its highest activity when we rest.

It represents a kind of basic operating system, a resting network that takes over when external tasks do not require our attention.

It is remarkable that a mental task like nondirective meditation results in even higher activity in this network than regular rest.”

When the experienced meditators practised a directive meditation technique — focusing on one thing to the exclusion of all else — the activity in their brains was similar to when they were simply resting without meditating.

Is mind wandering bad for you?

A complex issue at the heart of this study is whether mind wandering in meditation is good for you or not.

Some types of directive meditation, like mindfulness, see mind wandering as something to be avoided; whereas psychologists think mind wandering may be beneficial, even necessary.

The study’s authors point out that the…

“…types of meditation that allow spontaneous thoughts, images, sensations, memories, and emotions to emerge and pass freely without actively controlling or pursuing them, over time may reduce stress by increasing awareness and acceptance of emotionally charged experiences.

“…mind wandering and activation of the default mode network in general may serve introspective and adaptive functions beyond rumination and daydreaming.

Potentially useful functions would include mental simulations, using autobiographical memory retrieval to envision the future and conceiving the perspective of others.”  (Xu et al., 2014).

→ Find out more about the benefits of meditation.

Image credit: Moyan Brenn

4 Ways Mindfulness Meditation Benefits So Many Conditions

Mindfulness meditation works because of four central meditation benefits.

Mindfulness meditation works because of four central meditation benefits.

With studies pouring in on the benefits of mindfulness, psychologists’ attention is turning to why mindfulness works, and the results are fascinating.

For example, mindfulness meditation has been shown to have therapeutic benefits in depression, anxiety, substance abuse, chronic pain and eating disorders.

Its benefits extend out to physical features like lower blood pressure and lower cortisol levels.

How is it that this type of practice can have these beneficial effects on such a broad range of conditions?

A recent study by Hölzel et al. (2011) finds four central components to how mindfulness works:

1. Body awareness

Awareness of your own body has long been taught as one of the foundations of mindfulness meditation.

The Buddha says the mindful monk finds through…

“…his mindfulness that “There is a body” is maintained to the extent of knowledge and remembrance.

And he remains independent, unsustained by (not clinging to) anything in the world. This is how a monk remains focused on the body in and of itself.”

As a result of practising mindfulness, people report higher awareness of the sensations in their body, of the thoughts in their minds, how things taste and so on.

Being mindful may also help with empathising with others because knowledge of the self provides insight into others.

All these are often missed as the mind wanders randomly around.

2. Emotional control

After practising mindful meditation, people typically become much less reactive to things which previously piqued their emotions.

You can measure this through their skin conductance or with neuroimaging.

This is why it can be so useful for anxiety, since anxiety is (partly) a heightened emotional reaction to both thoughts and events.

3. Attentional control

One of the first challenges for anyone learning to meditate for the first time is maintaining attention.

It’s only when you try to concentrate on something as simple as your breath going in and out  for any length of time that you discover the full spectrum of your distractability.

With practice, though, it becomes easier and the blossoming of attentional control has all sorts of wonderful knock-on effects.

As the great psychologist William James once wrote, controlling attention is at “the very root of judgement, character and will”.

4. New perspective on the self

Becoming mindful leads to being able to see in action the thought processes that manufacture what feels like ‘the self’ to us.

This can produce a startling revelation that is a central tenet of Buddhism: there is no such thing as a permanent, unchanging self.

What this allows is a kind of meta-awareness: you are watching your own mind in action.

The Dalai Lama says:

“This seemingly solid, concrete, independent, self-instituting I under its own power that appears actually does not exist at all.”

Liberation comes with the realisation that there is no ‘I’.

Studies have found that this realisation leads to greater self-acceptance, higher self-esteem and a more positive self-representation.

These changes can also be seen physiologically in the brain with lower activation of the ‘default mode’ network.

This network has been implicated in our  self-referencing mind-wandering (you know, all that worrying about whether YOU said the right things to so-and-so or where YOU are going on holiday or what YOU are going to say to your boss about the project that isn’t completed yet).

Free from some of these endless and tiring concerns, we can find more peace.

Image credit: Mitchell Joyce

4 Wonderful Ways Meditation Relieves Pain

Meditation thickens critical areas of the cortex, changes attitudes to pain and more…

Meditation thickens critical areas of the cortex, changes attitudes to pain and more…

One of the many remarkable ways psychological studies have shown that meditation benefits the mind is by reducing pain.

A recent review of 47 clinical trials found it was the effects of meditation on pain that were the largest, compared with other advantages such as reducing depression and anxiety.

Until recently, though, we knew little about exactly how meditation helps reduce pain.

Fortunately that is beginning to change and not a moment too soon because knowing how meditation works will help us understand which type works best for what, who it can benefit most and why.

1. Crucial changes in brain activity

Meditation can change the brain’s activity in important ways.

Researchers have tested this by applying heated paddles to participants’ feet and scanning their brains (Zeidan et al., 2011).

They found that meditators who’d done nothing more than four 20-minute classes showed lower activation in the somatosensory cortex, an area of the brain crucial to the experience of pain.

At the same time, they had higher levels of activation in the anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and the orbito-frontal cortex.

The lead author of the study explains the relevance of these areas:

“These areas all shape how the brain builds an experience of pain from nerve signals that are coming in from the body.

“Consistent with this function, the more that these areas were activated by meditation the more that pain was reduced.

One of the reasons that meditation may have been so effective in blocking pain was that it did not work at just one place in the brain, but instead reduced pain at multiple levels of processing.”

2. Cortical thickening

Over time meditation can actually thicken certain critical areas of the brain.

One study has compared the brains of those who meditate regularly with non-meditators (Grant et al., 2010).

They found that certain areas of the cortex — in particular the anterior cingulate — were thicker in meditators than non-meditators.

This shows that meditation not only changes the activity in this part of the brain, but also seems to make it larger.

3. Lower anticipation of pain

Sometimes the anticipation of pain is worse than the actual pain itself.

Many people who have to face pain on a regular basis — such as those with serious medical conditions — often prefer more pain sooner, rather than less pain later because it helps to reduce the anticipation.

However, meditators seem to anticipate pain less than non-meditators, thereby causing them less distress.

That’s the conclusion of a study which focused on the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain central to how we allocate our attention to potential threats (Brown & Jones, 2010).

In comparison to non-meditators, those who meditated regularly showed lower activity in this area of the brain (the midcingulate cortex).

As well as changing how people anticipated the pain, their results also suggested that it reduced the negative way they thought about pain.

4. Reduces dwelling

Like anticipation, the way a person thinks about their pain is crucial to how they experience it.

Brain imaging data from a study by Grant et al. (2010) of Zen meditators versus non-meditators has shown less activity in the areas of the brain associated with emotion, cognition and memory (the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus).

The study’s lead author Joshua Grant, explains:

“…we suggest it is possible to self-regulate in a more passive manner, by ‘turning off’ certain areas of the brain, which in this case are normally involved in processing pain.

The results suggest that Zen meditators may have a training-related ability to disengage some higher-order brain processes, while still experiencing the stimulus.”

Image credit: Rosh PR

Mindfulness at School Decreases Chance of Developing Depression

Positive results from best study yet carried out on teaching mindfulness in schools.

Positive results from best study yet carried out on teaching mindfulness in schools.

Mindfulness training in schools has been found to reduce and even prevent depression in adolescents.

The finding comes from research carried out in 408 students between the ages of 13 and 20 who were studying at five schools in Flanders, Belgium (Raes et al., 2013).

Matched classes were assigned either to mindfulness training or to a control condition who simply continued with their other classes as normal.

Their depression, anxiety and stress levels were measured before and after the intervention, as well as six months later.

Happier students

The results showed similar levels of depression when they started the study: 21% of those in the mindfulness group were depressed, and 24% in the control group.

After the mindfulness intervention, the percentage of pupils who were clinically depressed had dropped to 15%, and after six months it remained lower than baseline at 16%.

Meanwhile, in the control group, levels of depression had actually increased, up to 27% and after six months up to 31%.

The study’s results, therefore, suggest that mindfulness training can lead to reductions in depression. These gains are also likely to be maintained for at least six months after the intervention.

Stay in the moment

The mindfulness training used in the study had been specially adapted for adolescents, although the principles of mindfulness are the same for everyone.

Mindfulness is about learning to pay attention to what’s going on right now, in this present moment:

“Mindfulness refers to a compassionate and nonjudgmental moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experiences.” (Raes et al., 2013).

To that end students across the sessions were encouraged to focus on:

“attention to the breath and the moment” (session 1), “attention to the body and pleasant moments” (session 2), “attention to your inner boundaries and to unpleasant moments” (session 3), “attention to stress and space” (session 4), “attention to thoughts and emotion” (session 5), “attention to interpretations and communication” (session 6), “attention to your attitudes and your moods” (session 7), and “attention to yourself and your heartfulness (session 8)” (Raes et al., 2013).

Once taught, students could continue to benefit from these early lessons for a lifetime, perhaps immeasurably improving their lives.

Image credit: James Blann

Mindfulness: 6 Steps to Better Memory, Verbal Reasoning and Improved Concentration

Mindfulness is an effective antidote to mind-wandering.

Mindfulness is an effective antidote to mind-wandering.

If you can’t concentrate on a book, can’t sit quietly for 15 minutes or can barely make it through a blog post, then you’re not alone.

It’s the modern way–and we hear more and more people saying their attention span and memory are being eroded.

Maybe, they say, it’s the internet, or maybe it’s down to genes and personality.

Whatever the cause, a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science demonstrates that it can change.

Being mindful

In the research, 48 participants were assigned either to a mindfulness class or to a course on nutrition (Mrazek et al., 2013).

Both courses were only two weeks long and the classes met for 45 minutes over 8 sessions.

Students in the mindfulness group were asked to practice mindfulness outside the class and to apply what they’d learned to their everyday life.

The results of the study were striking. Those who’d practised mindfulness:

  • had better short-term memory,
  • improved their score on a verbal reasoning test,
  • and experienced less mind-wandering.

The researchers discovered that it was the last effect–the reduction in mind-wandering–that was responsible for the improved memory and reasoning.

It stands to reason: when your mind isn’t distracted and jumping around so much, it’s easier to keep things in short-term memory and to give a task your full attention.

The lead author, Michael Mrazek, explained:

“This is the most complete and rigorous demonstration that mindfulness can reduce mind-wandering, one of the clearest demonstrations that mindfulness can improve working memory and reading, and the first study to tie all this together to show that mind-wandering mediates the improvements in performance.”

Practice makes a perfect mind

One of the fascinating aspects of the study is that people’s scores increased on a test that is supposed to be uncoachable.

The test, the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) is a standardised test for fixed abilities.

But, if people are improving their scores after such a short intervention, it’s demonstrating that these kinds of cognitive abilities are not as fixed as is generally thought.

The second fascinating aspect of the study is the broad effect of the intervention.

Typically, people who do ‘brain training’ exercises get better at those specific brain training exercises but not much else.

For example, if you do loads of Sudoku or crossword puzzles, you get better at those specific activities, but these improvements generally doesn’t reach into other areas.

But here a mindfulness intervention was having a broad effect on memory, verbal skills and concentration.

The reason it works is because it dampens down mind wandering, our natural tendency to daydream, time-travel and generally goof off.

Psychologists call the neural structures that underlie this effect the ‘default network’.

The mind’s ‘default network’ is not a bad thing in itself, but it shouldn’t interfere when we want to concentrate:

“…mindfulness training leads to reduced activation of the default network, a collection of brain regions that typically show greater activation at rest than during externally directed cognitive tasks. Both long-term meditators and individuals who have completed 2 weeks of mindfulness training show reduced activation of the default network.” (Mrazek et al., 2013).

The six steps to mindfulness

For those of you who’d like to try this at home, here’s what the mindfulness classes involved:

“(a) sitting in an upright posture with legs crossed and gaze lowered,

(b) distinguishing between naturally arising thoughts and elaborated thinking,

(c) minimizing the distracting quality of past and future concerns by reframing them as mental projections occurring in the present,

(d) using the breath as an anchor for attention during meditation,

(e) repeatedly counting up to 21 consecutive exhalations

(f ) allowing the mind to rest naturally rather than trying to suppress the occurrence of thoughts.”

Image credit: Julian Coutinho

Meditation is an Effective Treatment for Depression, Anxiety and Pain

Data from 47 different clinical trials finds meditation is as effective as antidepressants.

Data from 47 different clinical trials finds meditation is as effective as antidepressants.

A medical journal review has found that just 30 minutes daily meditation can improve the symptoms of depression, anxiety and pain.

The research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, included studies with a total of 3,515 participants (Goyal et al., 2014).

All of the research involved active control groups so it was possible to discount the placebo effect.

The placebo effect occurs when people expect to get better–sometimes simply as a result of being in a study–and so they do.

Studies with active control groups, though, can help discount the placebo effect as the treatment can be compared with a group who have similar expectations.

Meditation is more than relaxation

Participants in this review had had at least 4 hours of instruction in a form of meditation, such as mindfulness or mantra-based programs.

Typically, though, participants were given 2.5 hours instruction per week over 8 weeks.

Many of the participants also had physical problems, like lower back pain, heart disease and insomnia, which were likely heavily involved in their depression and/or anxiety.

The control groups contained matched participants who did things that were similar to meditation, but without actually being meditation.

For example, people in the control group in some of the studies performed progressive muscle relaxation. This has some of the physical requirements of meditation–i.e. you’re relaxed–but doesn’t involve the cognitive aspect.

Madhav Goyal M.D. explained:

“A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing. But that’s not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.”

The meditation conditions, though, consistently outperformed the control conditions, suggesting meditation is effective.

And, when the researchers compared the magnitude of the gains with those taking medications, the effectiveness was similar.

No side-effects

On top of these findings for depression and anxiety, the review also found that meditation was an effective treatment for those experiencing pain.

When you consider that meditation has no side-effects in comparison to many medications, it starts to look even better.

→ Read on: Meditation Benefits: 10 Ways It Helps Your Mind

→ 10 Signs of Anxiety Everyone Should Know.

Image credit: c_liecht

Meditation Can ‘Debias’ the Mind in Only 15 Minutes

A new study finds that just 15 minutes mindfulness meditation can help free the mind of biased thinking.

A new study finds that just 15 minutes mindfulness meditation can help free the mind of biased thinking.

The research, published in the journal Psychological Science, tested the effects of meditation on a well-established mental bias called the ‘sunk cost’ bias (Hafenbrack et al., 2013).

The sunk cost bias refers to the fact that people find it difficult to give up on a goal into which they’ve already made a large investment.

Even once the goal has gone stale or proven unworkable, there’s a tendency to throw good money (or effort) after bad, simply because a significant investment has already been made.

“Well,” people say to themselves. “We’ve come this far…”

The effects of the ‘sunk cost’ bias can be seen in public projects that go way over budget and in military campaigns which continue long after their objectives have proven unworkable.

Thinking clearly

One of the strengths of meditation is that it shifts mental focus into the present moment.

Across two separate experiments, the researchers tested this by giving one group of participants a 15-minute mindfulness meditation induction.

Then they were given a business scenario which was designed to test the sunk cost bias.

In comparison to a control condition, thinking mindfully doubled the number of people who could avoid the sunk cost bias.

In the control condition just over 40% of people were able to resist the bias. This shot up to almost 80% among those who were thinking mindfully.

The researchers achieved similar results in another experiment and then went on to examine exactly how mindfulness is helpful.

In a third experiment they found that mindfulness increases the focus on the present moment, as it should.

A focus on the present in turn reduced negative feelings participants had about the ‘sunk cost’–the time, money and effort that had gone to waste.

This reduction in negative emotion meant participants were much better equipped to resist the bias.

The negativity bias

The finding builds on previous research which has found that meditation can help people fight the ‘negativity bias’: people’s natural tendency to focus too much on negative information (see also: The Genetic Predisposition to Focus on the Negative).

If this is the kind of improvement that can be seen after just 15 minutes of meditation, just imagine how much consistent, regular meditation can improve thinking and decision-making skills.

Image credit: AlicePopkorn

Meditation Changes How Genes Are Expressed

First study to show rapid beneficial changes from meditation at the molecular level.

First study to show rapid beneficial changes from meditation at the molecular level.

The health benefits of meditation are becoming well-established, but we still know little about how these effects are achieved.

A new study, though, sheds light onto the molecular changes that take place in the body as a result of meditation.

For their new study, Kaliman et al. (2014) recruited 19 experienced meditators, who each carried out an intensive 8-hour session of mindfulness meditation.

They were compared with a group of 21 others who engaged in quiet non-meditative activities for the same period of time.

Both groups gave blood samples before and after their activities.

After analysing these samples at the molecular level, they found some remarkable changes.

Amongst the group of experienced meditators, changes could be seen in the way certain important genes were expressed.

The expression of genes which are involved in inflammation, and generally in the body’s stress-response, were down-regulated.

These changes were not seen in the control group.

The body’s stress-response is important for all sorts of health conditions such as cancer, metabolic diseases and neuropsychological problems.

Richard J. Davidson, one of the study’s authors said:

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice.”

Stress recovery

Both groups were also given a test of social stress afterwards. This involved having to give a surprise speech in front of an audience and video camera.

Tests of cortisol levels in participants’ saliva revealed that the expert meditators were able to recover quicker from this stressful event than the other group.

This study may demonstrate physiological mechanisms which helps explain why mindfulness meditation is so beneficial.

Professor Davidson said:

“Our genes are quite dynamic in their expression and these results suggest that the calmness of our mind can actually have a potential influence on their expression.”

The lead author of the study, Perla Kaliman, added:

“The regulation of HDACs and inflammatory pathways may represent some of the mechanisms underlying the therapeutic potential of mindfulness-based interventions. Our findings set the foundation for future studies to further assess meditation strategies for the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions.”

→ Read on: Meditation Benefits: 10 Ways It Helps Your Mind

Image credit: Nadir Hashmi

Unwind: The Science of Rest, Relaxation and Sleep

How to sleep better, change unhelpful thought processes and tackle everyday stress and anxiety.

How to sleep better, change unhelpful thought processes and tackle everyday stress and anxiety.

Stress and anxiety strike almost everyone from time-to-time. It can be made worse by lack of sleep, the wrong mindset and unwanted intrusive thoughts.

Over the past few years here on PsyBlog I’ve covered many studies which help us better understand stress and anxiety.

The collection of articles below describe how to sleep better, change unhelpful thought processes and tackle everyday stress and anxiety.

• The Peaceful Mind: 5 Step Guide to Feeling Relaxed Fast – Five simple things that everyone can do to relax including awareness, breathing control, activities and sleep skills. This plan has been developed and tested by psychologists.

• 6 Easy Steps to Falling Asleep Fast – Psychological research over three decades demonstrates the power of Stimulus Control Therapy. Learn the six straightforward steps that will help you sleep better at night.

• Rethinking The Stress Mindset: Can You Find The Upside of Pressure? – Evidence that how we think about stress partly determines how we react to it.

• Can Everyday Hassles Make You Depressed? – Study showing that how people reacted to the little stressors of everyday life predicted whether they developed psychological problems a decade later. Do you sweat the small stuff?

• Perform Better Under Stress Using Self-Affirmation – Under stress most people perform worse, but a simple self-affirmation exercise can help improve your performance.

• Venting Emotions After Trauma Predicts Worse Outcomes – The hydraulic theory of the emotions is a misleading metaphor.

• 8 Ironic Effects of Thought Suppression – The more we try to avoid screwing up when stressed, the more likely it becomes.

• 8 Ways to Defeat Persistent Unwanted Thoughts – Techniques for dealing with unwanted thoughts including focused distraction, thought postponement, acceptance and meditation.

• Feeling Anxious? 5 Scientifically Proven Relaxation Techniques – Learn how to achieve a relaxed and focused state.

• Bad Night’s Sleep? Blame the Full Moon – People often complain of worse sleep around the full moon, but until now scientists have been skeptical.

• “Hidden Caves” in the Brain Open Up During Sleep to Wash Away Toxins – “Hidden caves” that open up in the brain may help explain sleep’s amazing restorative powers.

• Later School Start Times Improve Sleep and Daytime Functioning in Adolescents – How much extra sleep can make a difference to adolescent depression?

Image credit: Silvia Sala

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