Three years ago, Sacramento and Davis scientists at the University of California, Davis studied how meditation can increase the attention span of students as well as relieve stress, according to the news release, “Meditation helps increase attention span.” Mindfulness is about controlling the way we react to daily thoughts and feelings and staying focused on the present moment.
Medical students are being taught meditation techniques to prevent burnout and improve care. Doctors commonly tell patients that stress can be harmful to their health. Yet when it comes to reducing their own stress levels, physicians don’t always heed their own advice.
Mindfulness meditation for medical students helps reduce stress as it helps to increase attention span
Studies at other universities also focused on how mindfulness meditation can help, according to the news release on another study, “Transcendental Meditation buffers students against college stress: Study.” Other studies at various universities also examined how meditation can relieve at least the brain’s reaction to pain, according to the news release, “Transcendental Meditation reduces the brain’s reaction to pain.”
Now a new study looked at meditation’s usefulness for medical students. Most doctors can relate to how stressful medical school can be for most students. Part of the problem, according to researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, is that medical schools don’t include meditation and stress-reduction training in their curriculum. However, for the past three years all third-year students at Wake Forest Baptist have been provided guided relaxation and mindfulness meditation training known as Applied Relaxation and Applied Mindfulness (ARAM), thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The training is described in the fall 2013 issue of the journal Annals of Behavioral Science and Medical Education
Studies estimate that 20 to 60 percent of physicians experience burnout at some time during their careers. This level of distress and strain can have a significant influence on the quality of care that doctors provide. It can also decrease empathy and compassion for patients and increase the likelihood of medical errors, said William McCann, Psy.D., associate professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest Baptist and lead author of the paper.
“Research has repeatedly shown that mindfulness meditation and relaxation techniques can help moderate the influence of stress,” McCann explains, according to the October 30 news release, Medical students taught meditation techniques to prevent burnout and improve care. “In every stress-management program either mindfulness or relaxation is always included to decrease both the mental and physical wear and tear caused by stress.”
Stress reduction is the goal
The goal of the Wake Forest Baptist training was threefold: to help familiarize future doctors with techniques recommended in many medical treatment plans for patients; to reduce stress and prevent professional burnout; and to enhance performance by improving working memory and empathy and by moderating performance anxiety.
The ARAM training was composed of three sessions integrated into the third-year family medicine clerkship. According to McCann, 90 percent of the students found the class beneficial.
“The practice of medicine is a stressful challenge even for our best and brightest students,” McCann says in the news release. “The rate of burnout among doctors is sobering and every medical school needs to include stress-management training in their curriculums.” Wake Forest Baptist is one of only a few medical schools in the United States to include mindfulness or relaxation training in its curriculum, McCann says in the news release.
Funding for the project was provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration grant #D56HP20779. Co-authors include Gail Marion, PA-C, Ph.D., Stephen Davis, M.A., Sonia Crandall, Ph.D., and Carol Hildebrandt, B.A., of Wake Forest Baptist.
Meditation increases your attention span, says another study
It’s nearly impossible to pay attention to one thing for a long time. A new study looks at whether Buddhist meditation can improve a person’s ability to be attentive and finds that meditation training helps people do better at focusing for a long time on a task that requires them to distinguish small differences between things they see, says a new study, according to the July 14, 2010 news release, “Meditation helps increase attention span.”
The research was inspired by work on Buddhist monks, who spend years training in meditation. “You wonder if the mental skills, the calmness, the peace that they express, if those things are a result of their very intensive training or if they were just very special people to begin with,” says Katherine MacLean, according to the news release. MacLean worked on the study as a graduate student at the University of California – Davis. Her co-advisor, Clifford Saron, did some research with monks decades ago and wanted to study meditation by putting volunteers through intensive training and seeing how it changes their mental abilities.
About 140 people applied to participate; they heard about it via word of mouth and advertisements in Buddhist-themed magazines. Sixty were selected for the study. A group of thirty people went on a meditation retreat while the second group waited their turn; that meant the second group served as a control for the first group. All of the participants had been on at least three five-to-ten day meditation retreats before, so they weren’t new to the practice. They studied meditation for three months at a retreat in Colorado with B. Alan Wallace, one of the study’s co-authors and a meditation teacher and Buddhist scholar.
The people took part in several experiments; results from one are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. At three points during the retreat, each participant took a test on a computer to measure how well they could make fine visual distinctions and sustain visual attention. They watched a screen intently as lines flashed on it; most were of the same length, but every now and then a shorter one would appear, and the volunteer had to click the mouse in response.
Participants got better at discriminating the short lines as the training went on. This improvement in perception made it easier to sustain attention, so they also improved their task performance over a long period of time. This improvement persisted five months after the retreat, particularly for people who continued to meditate every day.
The task lasted 30 minutes and was very demanding. “Because this task is so boring and yet is also very neutral, it’s kind of a perfect index of meditation training,” says MacLean in the news release. “People may think meditation is something that makes you feel good and going on a meditation retreat is like going on vacation, and you get to be at peace with yourself. That’s what people think until they try it. Then you realize how challenging it is to just sit and observe something without being distracted.”
This experiment is one of many that were done by Saron, MacLean and a team of nearly 30 researchers with the same group of participants. It’s the most comprehensive study of intensive meditation to date, using methods drawn from fields as diverse as molecular biology, neuroscience, and anthropology. Future analyses of these same volunteers will look at other mental abilities, such as how well people can regulate their emotions and their general well-being.
Meditation to relieve anxiety
You might want to take a look at the news release, “Anxious? Activate your anterior cingulate cortex with a little meditation.” Scientists, like Buddhist monks and Zen masters, have known for years that meditation can reduce anxiety, but not how. Scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, however, have succeeded in identifying the brain functions involved.
“Although we’ve known that meditation can reduce anxiety, we hadn’t identified the specific brain mechanisms involved in relieving anxiety in healthy individuals,” said Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., according to that news release. Zeidan (at the date of the news release) is the postdoctoral research fellow in neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist and lead author of the study. “In this study, we were able to see which areas of the brain were activated and which were deactivated during meditation-related anxiety relief.”
The study is published in the June 2013 edition of the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, “Mindfulness training and neural integration: differentiation of distinct streams of awareness and the cultivation of well-being”
For the study, 15 healthy volunteers with normal levels of everyday anxiety were recruited for the study. These individuals had no previous meditation experience or anxiety disorders. All subjects participated in four 20-minute classes to learn a technique known as mindfulness meditation. In this form of meditation, people are taught to focus on breath and body sensations and to non-judgmentally evaluate distracting thoughts and emotions. Check out the study’s abstract, “Mindfulness training and neural integration: differentiation of distinct streams of awareness and the cultivation of well-being.”
Both before and after meditation training, the study participants’ brain activity was examined using a special type of imaging – arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging – that is very effective at imaging brain processes, such as meditation. In addition, anxiety reports were measured before and after brain scanning.
The majority of study participants reported decreases in anxiety
Researchers found that meditation reduced anxiety ratings by as much as 39 percent. “This showed that just a few minutes of mindfulness meditation can help reduce normal everyday anxiety,” Zeidan said in the news release.
The study revealed that meditation-related anxiety relief is associated with activation of the anterior cingulate cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, areas of the brain involved with executive-level function. During meditation, there was more activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls worrying. In addition, when activity increased in the anterior cingulate cortex – the area that governs thinking and emotion – anxiety decreased.
Mindfulness is about staying focused on the present moment and controlling the way you react to thoughts and feelings
“Mindfulness is premised on sustaining attention in the present moment and controlling the way we react to daily thoughts and feelings,” Zeidan said in the news release. “Interestingly, the present findings reveal that the brain regions associated with meditation-related anxiety relief are remarkably consistent with the principles of being mindful.”
Research at other institutions has shown that meditation can significantly reduce anxiety in patients with generalized anxiety and depression disorders. The results of this neuroimaging experiment complement that body of knowledge by showing the brain mechanisms associated with meditation-related anxiety relief in healthy people, he said in the news release.
Support for the study was provided by the Mind and Life Institute’s Francisco J. Varela Grant, the National Institutes of Health grant NS3926 and the Biomolecular Imaging Center at Wake Forest Baptist. Co-authors are Katherine Martucci, Ph.D., Robert Kraft, Ph.D., John McHaffie, Ph.D., and Robert Coghill, Ph.D., of Wake Forest Baptist.