January Neuroscience Round-Up for Mindful Leaders

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By The Mindful Leader Team

This month, we look at what the science tells us about maximizing mindfulness in the workplace, the role of exercise and mindfulness in the cognition of older adults, and how psilocybin might increase trait mindfulness. Then, we’ll dive into the psychology of our love for villains and how blocking our automatic imitation behaviors can actually increase empathy and understanding of others. We have summarized the main ideas and key takeaways below with links to the full articles.

When Mindfulness Does — and Doesn’t — Help at Work    

More and more workplaces have started to introduce mindfulness trainings and programs, but a new series of in-the-field research studies reveal that the effectiveness of such interventions really depends on the type of mindfulness-based meditation practice. Particularly, the researchers compared breath-based meditation (in which you focus on your breathing) versus loving-kindness meditation (in which you imagine sending goodwill and kindness to others). In the first study, meditation of any kind helped IT call center consultants to be more attentive and helpful throughout their day. Notably, breath-based meditation helped people better understand the cognitive perspectives of others while loving-kindness meditation boosted people’s empathy, making them more able to feel what others were feeling. However, in the second study, breath-based meditation was actually more harmful than good, as it shifted the individual’s attention to focus on themselves, reducing their guilt and discouraging them from engaging in reparative or problem-solving behavior. While a standard daily mindfulness practice can benefit anyone’s work performance, workplaces can encourage certain types of mindfulness in different situations to help make it the most effective for employees, managers, and customers. 

Key Points:

  • Choose the right meditation practice for your workplace; Loving-kindness meditation may be more appropriate in situations in which accountability is important, or for executives and managers.
  • The timing of the meditation practice is also important, and it needs to fit smoothly within an employee’s workday routine. Many employees find it helpful to engage in targeted mindfulness practice directly before interacting with others (for example, before answering the customer service phone line or while walking to the next patient’s room).
  • Mindfulness can be particularly useful in helping employees prepare for important, stressful one-time events, such as a big meeting or pitch. 

Read the full article on Harvard Business Review; Find the published studies here and here

Exercise and Mindfulness Don’t Appear to Boost Cognitive Function in Older Adults    

Given that exercise and mindfulness are known to improve physical and mental health in older adults, this study tested if there were also positive effects on cognitive function. The study consisted of over 500 adults aged 65 to 84, all of whom were considered cognitively normal for their age. Participants were divided into four groups: those that received exercise instruction, mindfulness instruction, both, or simply a general education session. Memory tests and brain scans were performed at the beginning of the study, as well as after six months and 18 months. Interestingly, there was not a significant difference in cognitive performance among the four groups at any point.

Key Points:

  • While exercise and mindfulness did not directly improve cognition in healthy older adults within an 18-month period, it is possible that these activities could slow or prevent future cognitive decline. The researchers plan to study the participants in the following five years to observe any such effects.
  • It is also possible that exercise and mindfulness may improve cognitive function in older adults who are already cognitively impaired. This study only looked at healthy, neurotypical older adults.
  • Despite these results, the researchers remind us that exercise and mindfulness have many positive benefits for health and wellbeing and are still worthwhile activities for older adults especially.

Read the full article on Neuroscience News; Find the published study here

Study suggests psilocybin increases mindfulness, especially when accompanied by mystical experiences

A new study recently published in Frontiers in Psychology indicates that mystical-type experiences induced by psilocybin can lead to an increase in trait mindfulness. Researchers administered psilocybin to 39 willing and healthy participants and performed brain scans of over half. After six hours, participants answered a mystical experience questionnaire, responding to questions about feeling a sense of unity or ecstasy, losing a sense of time, etc. Mindfulness was measured both before the dose of psilocybin as well as three months later using the Mindfulness Attention and Awareness Scale. Throughout the study, trait mindfulness was defined as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”

Key Points:

  • There was an 8.1% increase in trait mindfulness from before taking the psilocybin to three months afterward.
  • Participants who reported higher mystical experiences also demonstrated a greater increase in trait mindfulness.
  • Brain scans identified less binding activity of the serotonin receptor, 5-HTR, in the right side of the amygdala, which suggests this side of the amygdala may be more involved in mindfulness than the left.

Read the full article on MSN; Find the published study here. 

Examining Children’s and Adults’ Reasoning About the Nature of Villains

A new study performed by researchers at the University of Michigan offers some psychological insight into our love for villains. In a series of experiments, researchers measured how 434 children (aged 4-12) and 277 adults evaluated the antisocial acts committed by evil characters, including popular villains Ursula (from Disney’s The Little Mermaid) and Woody (from Pixar’s Toy Story). Importantly, the first experiment confirmed that children and adults view the villain’s actions and emotions as overwhelmingly negative. The next experiments asked about multiple factors, such as how a character felt inside, whether a character’s actions reflected their true self, and whether a character’s true self could change over time. Overall, both children and adults consistently viewed villains as much more evil than heroes, yet they also believed that the villains were more likely to have a true self that differed from their outward behavior.

Key Points:

  • Both children and adults tend to view villains as inwardly good despite the outward immoral behavior of these characters. However, people tend to consider heroes as fully good, both on the outside and inside. 
  • It is potentially this gap between outward behavior and a different inner self that makes villains so appealing to us, and it adds a layer of complexity to the character that we don’t tend to observe in heroes. 

Read the full article on Neuroscience News; Find the published study here

Inhibiting Imitation of Others Can Increase Understanding of Others    

When we try to empathize with people, we commonly imitate their facial expressions, largely unconsciously. Imitation-inhibition training focuses on making people suppress these automatic acts of mimicry and has been shown to actually increase feelings of empathy while also increasing the ability to distinguish between self and other. In this study, researchers investigated how imitation-inhibition training affects the speed and accuracy of the recognition of facial expressions in others. Half the group received the training while the other half did not. Then, all participants were shown images of faces and asked to identify their facial expressions. Importantly, they had to hold a chopstick in their mouth during this task to block any acts of facial mimicry.

Key Points:

  • Imitation-inhibition training increased the speed with which participants correctly identified the facial expressions of others, even though these expressions were different from their own.
  • Those who underwent imitation-inhibition training also scored higher on a particular measure of empathy, the interpersonal reactivity index.
  • Collectively, these findings suggest that being able to clearly distinguish between yourself and others’ situations and to understand the situation of others independently from your own situation is critical for building empathy and communicating with others.

Read the full article on Neuroscience News; Find the published study here.


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