Chinese researchers have unlocked the mechanism of an emerging
mind-body technique that produces measurable changes in attention
and stress reduction in just five days of practice.
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. It
is now being taught to undergraduates involved in research
on the method at the University of Oregon.
In October 2007, researchers led by visiting UO professor
Yi-Yuan Tang and UO psychologist Michael Posner documented
in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences
that doing IBMT prior to a mental math test led to low levels
of the stress hormone cortisol among Chinese students. The
experimental group also showed lower levels of anxiety, depression,
anger and fatigue than students in a relaxation control group.
"The previous paper indicated that IBMT subjects showed a
reduced response to stress." Tang said. "Why after five days
did it work so fast?" The new findings, he said, point to
how IBMT alters blood flow and electrical activity in the
brain, breathing quality and even skin conductance, allowing
for "a state of ah, much like in the morning opening your
eyes, looking outside the grass and sunshine, you feel relaxed,
calm and refresh without any stress, this is the meditation
This week, in a paper appearing online ahead of regular publication
in PNAS, Tang and 13 Chinese colleagues define brain and physiological
changes triggered by IBMT. Data were drawn from several technologies
in two experiments involving 86 undergraduate students at
Dalian University of Technology, where Tang is a professor.
The data were analyzed and prepared for publication at the
UO with help from Posner and psychology professor Mary K.
Rothbart, who are not co-authors on the paper.
"We 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 said.
"The results seem to show integration -- 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
Single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) -- a scanning
method less distracting than functional magnetic resonance
imaging (fMRI) -- showed IBMT subjects had increased blood
flow in the right anterior cingulate cortex, a region associated
with self regulation of cognition and emotion.
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."
Finally, researchers noted, 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.
Preliminary findings of a recently completed but unpublished
UO study involving a small group of U.S. students are showing
nearly identical results, Posner said. The UO study used fMRI
rather than SPECT. A much larger UO study is in progress.
IBMT 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., while soothing music plays
in the background. Thought control is achieved gradually through
posture, relaxation, body-mind harmony and balanced breathing.
A good coach is critical, Tang said.
"Life is full of stress, and people need to learn methods
to handle stress and improve their performance," Tang said.
"There is physical training but we wanted to see about mental
training. This method appears to have benefit for the modern
society where the pace is fast."