March Neuroscience Round-Up for Mindful Leaders

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By The Mindful Leader Team

This month, we consider how exercise can boost traditional therapy, look at how migraine patients benefit from mindfulness, examine the neurological toll of racism, explore the science of white, brown, and other “colored” noise, and finally, investigate the role mindfulness plays in the effectiveness of sensory advertising. We have summarized the main ideas and key takeaways below with links to the full articles.

Adding Exercise to Therapy May Make It More Effective    

There is a growing movement among practitioners to incorporate exercise alongside traditional approaches to therapy. For instance, True Mind + Body, a mental health clinic in Northbrook, Illinois, offers “walk-and-talk” appointments, where clients can discuss concerns with their therapist while they take a walk together. Similarly, other practitioners routinely integrate nature into their treatment plans with activities like gardening and hiking. Now, there’s a growing body of scientific literature supporting the idea that mental health treatments are more effective when they incorporate movement and exercise programs. Exercise releases feel-good endorphins, boosts blood flow and stimulates nerve growth and cognitive function, and tends to improve sleep quality, all of which may play a role in explaining why movement improves mental health. Importantly, any type of exercise works to boost mental health; there is no set type or time requirement that is most beneficial. Rather, it depends on what works best for you and your lifestyle.

Key Points:

  • Exercise and therapy do not need to be done simultaneously to be beneficial. Having a regular physical activity schedule alongside mental health treatment can lead to greater improvements in both physical and mental well-being.
  • According to a 2020 research review, patients suffering from depression experienced fewer negative symptoms when they combined their treatment plan (whether pharmaceutical or therapeutic) with physical activity.
  • While any type of movement is helpful, research suggests that the most beneficial is exercise that fulfills certain psychological needs: feeling competent, connecting with others, and mastering tasks or skills. So, if possible, try to find a type of exercise that includes a social component and is neither too easy nor too hard. 

Read the full article on Time.

Mechanisms of mindfulness in patients with migraine: Results of a qualitative study  

Previous clinical studies have found that MBSR results in significant improvements in headache-related disability, pain catastrophizing, headache self-efficacy, depressive symptoms, and pain perception, yet the mechanism(s) behind this remain unclear. In this follow-up study, Dr. Paige Estave and her research team conducted a data-driven qualitative study to gain better insight into how mindfulness, but specifically mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) skills, affect patients’ experience with their migraine condition. For the treatment group, 43 randomly-selected participants, all of who suffer from migraines, were enrolled in a standard 8-week MBSR course in which they engaged in focused attention, open monitoring, and group dialogue sessions, in addition to private homework exercises. Another 44 participants (also migraine sufferers) were randomly assigned to the control group and received a general course on headache control instead. After the training period, all participants were interviewed about their qualitative experience with migraines. Although mindfulness was taught as a preventative migraine strategy, many patients reported using it acutely, focusing on breathing to manage pain when a migraine did occur.

Key Points:

  • Learning mindfulness through MBSR resulted in participants reporting increased self-awareness of internal and external experiences, better pain perception and response to migraine attacks, and improved overall well-being.
  • Mindfulness skills helped participants identify the onset of a migraine attack sooner, which led to earlier and more effective treatment.
  • Mindfulness also helped participants decrease harmful emotional responses to their migraine condition, such as fear, pain catastrophizing, anticipatory anxiety, and pain reactivity.

Read the full study on Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain.

Racism takes a toll on the brain, research shows  

Scientific research is now confirming what many Black people and other racial minorities have long suspected: racial discrimination and structural racism negatively affect the brain, mental health, and physical well-being. Researchers Fani, Harnett, and colleagues have spent the last few years conducting and publishing findings from various studies that examine the impact of racial discrimination on the brain. In one study, they found that among Black women, those who experienced more racial discrimination had greater activity in the brain regions relating to threat vigilance and emotional regulation. While this state of heightened vigilance can be beneficial in the short term and can boost attention, if experienced on a long-term basis, the build-up of this stress can negatively change the brain. 

Key Points:

  • Racial discrimination, especially the chronic build-up over time, degrades gray and white matter in the brain, particularly disrupting connections in the prefrontal cortex (a region heavily involved in emotional self-regulation). These decreases correspond to greater medical issues overall, including increased vulnerability to conditions like depression, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
  • Although experiences of racial discrimination and the effects of systemic racism have historically been invalidated, there is a growing push in the scientific community to study racial trauma. The research is now proving that many of the harmful effects experienced by these minority groups are a direct result of racism and not their racial identity itself.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy or mindfulness sessions with practitioners trained in racial stress may help members of these racial minority communities better deal with the harmful effects of racial trauma. 

Read the full article on The Washington Post.

What's the Difference Between White, Pink, and Brown Noise?    

You’ve likely heard of white noise or brown noise (and perhaps some of the other “colored noises”) and maybe you’ve even listened to them yourself — but what exactly is the difference between the different types, and can they really help with focus, sleep, and relaxation? In this article, journalist Hannah Baxter reached out to three experts, Dr. Dan Berleau, Dr. Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, and Dr. Andrew Huberman, to learn more about the science of this particular type of sound therapy. Basically, each type of noise features a slightly different range of frequencies played at different volumes. White noise, for instance, includes all audible frequencies (20 Hz – 20 kHz) played together at the same volume, while pink noise has a slightly lower frequency range and brown noise even lower still. Functionally, each type of noise works to block out other distracting sounds and noises by giving your brain a steady and boring sound to focus on instead. Depending on your personal preferences, you might prefer a different type of noise. While the research is limited, there is some evidence that different types of noise are better suited for different tasks.

Key Points:

  • White noise has been the most studied with evidence to suggest that listening to this color sound can help people with ADHD reduce off-task behavior and focus better, especially when reading and writing.
  • Although less clinically studied, researchers theorize that brown noise is more enjoyable to listen to than white noise, which may make people more likely to use it long-term to aid focus.
  • When it comes to insomnia, some studies have found that pink noise gradually slows brain waves and might be best for stabilizing sleep.
  • Whether these different colored noises change our brain activity directly or simply act as a placebo effect, listening to them is an effective way to enter a meditative state, which then changes how you process the rest of the world. In other words, they are effective in improving focus, sleep, and relaxation, even if science can’t entirely explain why just yet.

Read the full article on Allure.

The Effects of Mindfulness on Sensory Marketing: The Role of Mental Imagery Vividness and the Sensory Type Number  

While prior studies have looked at how mindfulness contributes to consumer decision-making, this recent study published in Behavioral Sciences was the first to explore the role mindfulness plays in sensory marketing specifically. Sensory ads aim to persuade consumers through either direct sensory clues, like a scented paper strip for a perfume in a magazine or through indirect sensory clues, such as using words or images that call to mind certain sensory cues. Since mindfulness has been shown to increase sensory perception and attention, these researchers designed a series of three experiments to empirically test if higher mindfulness would result in sensory ads being more effective. The first experiment measured the effect of baseline mindfulness levels in participants while in the latter two, mindfulness was manipulated by having participants either listen to a mindfulness audio recording or a neutral recording on natural science phenomena. In all experiments, participants were shown sensory advertisement copies of freeze-dried mango and then asked a series of questions about their purchase intentions.

Key Points:

  • Higher mindfulness, whether primed or not, encouraged the sensory effects of the ads, leading to increased intent to purchase on the part of the consumer.
  • This relationship was largely mediated, or explained by, the vividness of the mental images. In other words, greater mindfulness resulted in the sensory ads creating more vivid mental pictures in the minds of consumers and that made the ads more effective in encouraging them to purchase the product.
  • As the number of sensory types used in an ad increased, there was a stronger positive persuasive effect for those with greater levels of mindfulness. Those with lower levels of mindfulness were more likely to feel overwhelmed with the addition of more and more sensory types.

Read the full study on MDPI.


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