Chinese researchers have unravelled how a training technique adapted from traditional Chinese medicine works to reduce stress and enhance learning.
The novel mind-body training technique apparently produces results after just five days and has been found to have both brain and physiological links.
The practice - integrative body-mind training (IBMT) was adapted from traditional Chinese medicine in the 1990s in China, where it is practiced by thousands of people and is now being taught to undergraduates involved in research on the method at the University of Oregon (UO).
In 2007, researchers led by visiting UO professor Yi-Yuan Tang and UO psychologist Michael Posner found that doing IBMT prior to a mental mathematics test led to low levels of the stress hormone cortisol among the students and when compared to a relaxation control group the IBMT group also showed lower levels of anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue.
Dr. Tang is a professor of neuroinformatics at China's Dalian University of Technology and visiting scholar at the University of Oregon and he says previous research indicated that IBMT subjects showed a reduced response to stress but why it worked so fast was unclear.
He says this latest research shows how IBMT alters blood flow and electrical activity in the brain, breathing quality and even skin conductance, allowing for "a state akin to how a person might feel on waking on a sunny morning feeling relaxed, calm and refreshed without any stress" - he says this is the state of meditation.
Research by Dr. Tang and 13 Chinese colleagues have defined the brain and physiological changes triggered by IBMT using several technologies in two experiments involving 86 undergraduate students at Dalian University of Technology, where Tang is a professor.
Dr. Posner and psychology professor Mary K. Rothbart, who are not co-authors on the paper say they were able to show that the training improved the connection between a central nervous system structure, the anterior cingulate, and the parasympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system to help put a person into a more bodily state.
Posner says the results seem to show integration or a connectivity of brain and body.
In each experiment, participants who had not previously practiced relaxation or meditation received either IBMT or general relaxation instruction for 20 minutes a day for five days.
While both groups experienced some benefit from the training, those in IBMT showed dramatic differences based on brain-imaging and physiological testing using single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) - a scanning method less distracting than functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
The scans showed IBMT subjects had increased blood flow in the right anterior cingulate cortex, a region associated with self regulation of cognition and emotion and physiological tests also revealed significant changes.
Compared with the relaxation group, IBMT subjects had lower heart rates and skin conductance responses, increased belly breathing amplitude and decreased chest respiration rates, all of which, researchers wrote, "reflected less effort exerted by participants and more relaxation of body and calm state of mind."
The researchers also noticed that IBMT subjects had more high-frequency heart-rate variability than their relaxation counterparts, indicating "successful inhibition of sympathetic tone and activation of parasympathetic tone in the autonomic nervous system (sympathetic tone becomes more active when stressed).
Dr. Posner says preliminary findings of a recently completed but unpublished UO study involving a small group of U.S. students are show almost identical results and a much larger UO study is in progress.
The IBMT technique avoids struggles to control thought, relying instead on a state of restful alertness, allowing for a high degree of body-mind awareness while receiving instructions from a coach, who provides breath-adjustment guidance and mental imagery and other techniques, whilst soothing music plays in the background - thought control is achieved gradually through posture, relaxation, body-mind harmony and balanced breathing, but Dr. Tang says a good coach is critical.
Dr. Tang says life is full of stress, and people need to learn methods to handle stress and improve their performance - Tang says there is physical training - but they wanted to look at mental training and he believes this method appears to have benefit for the modern society fast pace.
The research is published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences and was funded by China's Natural Science Foundation and Ministry of Education and the U.S.-based James S. Bower and John Templeton foundations.