Mindfulness meditation and relaxation response have different effects on brain function

June 13, 2018, Massachusetts General Hospital
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

A variety of meditation-based programs have been developed in recent years to reduce stress and medical symptoms and to promote wellness. One lingering question is to what extent these programs are similar or different. In a study published in the June issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, a team led by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers, in collaboration with members of the two leading mind-body stress reduction programs, reports the results of their study documenting the different effects these mind-body practices have in the brain.

There are two widely used meditation-based reduction courses. One is based on the relaxation response—first described by Herb Benson, MD, director emeritus of the MGH-based Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine - which focuses on eliciting a physiologic state of deep rest, the opposite of the "fight or flight" stress response. The other is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which emphasizes a particular, non-judgmental attitude termed "mindfulness" as key to . Although both interventions are based on meditation, the scientific philosophies and meditative traditions upon which each is founded are different, and these differences are reflected in the instructions and exercises taught to patients.

"If the hypotheses proposed by the programs' creators are in fact correct, they imply that these programs promote wellness through different mechanisms of action," says Sara Lazar, Ph.D., of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroscience Research Program, senior author of the current report and assistant professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School. "Such a finding would suggest that these programs could potentially have different effects on disease."

To investigate that possibility, healthy adults with high levels of stress were randomized to two 8-week programs—18 completed the relaxation response program, and 16 completed the mindfulness program. Both programs successfully decreased stress and increased mindfulness in participants. However, the mindfulness program resulted in further improvements in measures such as self-compassion and rumination, clearly indicating that the programs are not the same, Lazar says.

To further understand the similarities and differences between the programs, the team measured brain activity during a meditation technique common to both programs—a body scan, in which attention is moved sequentially throughout the body to develop bodily awareness. While the relaxation response program instructs participants to deliberately relax each body area as they become aware of it, the mindfulness program just emphasizes mindful awareness and acceptance "without any attempt to change anything."

Lead author Gunes Sevinc, Ph.D., a research fellow in Lazar's laboratory says, "By directly comparing the body-scan meditations, which differed only in cognitive strategy, we were able to identify the brain regions that are involved in mediating the common and differential strategies employed by each intervention."

The results showed that the strength of neural interaction between brain regions associated with present-moment awareness and bodily attention increased during both types of body-scan meditation. But each program also showed unique patterns of brain activity in line with the different theoretical orientation of each program. The relaxation response body scan strengthened coupling between neural regions commonly associated with deliberate control, including inferior frontal gyrus and supplementary motor areas. Conversely, the mindfulness body scan strengthened coupling between neural regions associated with sensory awareness and perception, including the insula and the pregenual anterior cingulate.

"These findings indicate that the programs are working through different neural mechanisms," says Sevinc, "The relaxation response program is working more through deliberate control mechanisms, while the is working more through sensory awareness mechanisms. It is somewhat analogous to weight training vs. aerobic exercise—both are beneficial, but each has its unique mechanism and contribution."

Norman Farb, Ph.D., of the University of Toronto Department of Psychology, who was not part of the study, says, "Professor Lazar's neuroimaging study helps us to better appreciate how these seemingly similar practices differ in important ways. Both practices seem to promote access to neural representations of the body, but they differ in how such representations are structured. This study is important for beginning to inform the public about key differences between conceptually similar therapeutic approaches, which may in turn allow people to make more skillful decisions about which practice might be right for their personal improvement."

Lazar notes that future studies will be needed to determine whether these neural and psychological differences impact specific diseases in unique ways.

Explore further: Mindfulness program may help increase physical activity levels

More information: Gunes Sevinc et al, Common and Dissociable Neural Activity After Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Relaxation Response Programs, Psychosomatic Medicine (2018). DOI: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000590

Related Stories

Mindfulness program may help increase physical activity levels

June 5, 2018
(HealthDay)—A meditation and stress reduction program may be as effective as structured exercise programs for increasing physical activity, according to a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

Study shows mindfulness meditation app works—but acceptance training component is crucial

October 23, 2017
For the millions of mindfulness meditation mobile app users, there is good news: New research shows that they can reduce the body's response to biological stress.

Mindfulness training to help with weight loss

May 31, 2018
(HealthDay)—If mindless eating can put on the pounds, it stands to reason that mindful eating can help with diet success.

Meditation: different approaches, different benefits

April 19, 2018
(HealthDay)—Deep breathing is a great stress reliever, and the technique called mindfulness meditation is a helpful way to use breathing to get more in touch with your inner self.

The benefits of 'being in the present'

October 6, 2017
(HealthDay)—When you have a full schedule, multitasking might seem like the best way to finish your endless to-do list.

Neurobiological changes explain how mindfulness meditation improves health

February 4, 2016
Over the past decade, mindfulness meditation has been shown to improve a broad range of health and disease outcomes, such as slowing HIV progression and improving healthy aging. Yet, little is known about the brain changes ...

Recommended for you

A depressed spouse may increase one's own cognitive decline, study finds

August 21, 2018
Researchers at Yale School of Public Health and their scientific partners have found that having a depressed spouse can increase one's own depressive symptoms as well as cognitive decline over time in late life. 

Study identifies 'compulsivity circuit' in heavy alcohol drinkers

August 21, 2018
Heavy alcohol drinkers attempt to acquire alcohol despite the threat of a negative consequence more so than light drinkers, a study in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging has found, and this behavior ...

Beauty is simpler, and less special, than we realize

August 20, 2018
Beauty, long studied by philosophers, and more recently by scientists, is simpler than we might think, New York University psychology researchers have concluded in a new analysis. Their work, which appears in the journal ...

Bilingual children who speak native language at home have higher intelligence

August 20, 2018
Children who regularly use their native language at home while growing up in a different country have higher IQs, a new study has shown.

People are more honest when using a foreign tongue, research finds

August 17, 2018
New UChicago-led research suggests that someone who speaks in a foreign language is probably more credible than the average native speaker.

FDA approves brain stimulation device for OCD

August 17, 2018
(HealthDay)—A brain stimulation device to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) has received approval for marketing Friday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

5 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

LaPortaMA
5 / 5 (1) Jun 13, 2018

There are two widely used meditation-based stress reduction courses. One is based on the relaxation response—first described by Herb Benson, MD, director emeritus of the MGH-based Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine - which focuses on eliciting a physiologic state of deep rest, the opposite of the "fight or flight" stress response. The other is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, -- which means that these are man-made attachments.

1) if done for a CAUSE, psychospiritual endeavors work poorly until the REASON is relinquished. Translate,which one gets ego out of the way?
2) Trust Harvard? Not always.
3) 8 weeks, closed end? Piffle. Real meditation is not a chapter in a book; it's a change of mindset and attitude.
MedX wins again.
NoStrings
not rated yet Jun 14, 2018
Really, mindfulness is a state of mindlessness. That is what it achieves. Or tries to. But, who am I to argue?
LaPortaMA
not rated yet Jun 14, 2018
PS>> Herb Benson, MD, director emeritus of the MGH-based Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine - The other is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn,"
I love them both, but Benson has an agenda, and JKZ is barely known because that's he wants it.
And the idea that either of these is new is not tenable, merely modern idiom.
SO it could turn out that one has advantages, but to paraphrase the other commentator, who cares?
LaPortaMA
not rated yet Jun 14, 2018
It bears repetitious reiteration the idea that if one meditates or practices any of these psychospiritual endeavors for a purpose, one is not meditating, one is, e.g., trying to treat blood pressure or anxiety. Meditation becomes meditation when it is done for no reason. In summary then, one does not obtain the fruits of the practice until one relinquishes the reason for which one has assumed the practice. Yoga isn't yoga until it stopped being done for any reason. Anyone reading this should have familiariy with basic Patanjali
rrwillsj
1 / 5 (1) Jun 14, 2018
Or I could just pop a prescription and chase it down with a pitcher or two of beer and I''m good to go!

Whatta ya mean you won't let me have my damn car keys? Hey, I've never felt better.... Why are you and your matching twin ganging up on me?

Those 15 second commercials are a great method to teach instant mindlessness. It's the American Way!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.