Calmer Choice, non-profit organization in Barnstable, Massachusetts Calmer Choice, non-profit organization in Barnstable, Massachusetts

Brains: The Calmer Choice Research Story (Part 4 of 4)

Our odyssey into mindfulness research continues…

By this time we realize that there is no end to the research, the questions are going to be continuous. Their importance in the field, and for Calmer Choice, are becoming an integral part of who we are in the world of mindfulness education, and this next study with MIT is nothing less than remarkable. This study not only had students self-report via surveys but also looked at brain scans of a cohort of these adolescents before and after the Calmer Choice program.

And so it began. As usual, the small worldliness of “who you know” was in effect. It started with a conversation between the Gabrielli brothers, one a researcher in education at Harvard and the other a researcher of brains at MIT. I’ll cut to the chase and just say that they decided they needed to study the effects of mindfulness on the brain and in 2015 contacted Dawa Phillips (super guru in the field of mindfulness) to ask who could teach a mindfulness program to kids in the Boston area. Dawa and Chris Willard are friends, so he rang him up and asked if he had any ideas. Chris, at this point in time, is on the Calmer Choice advisory board and recommends us. He promptly hung up the phone and called Fiona, “Hi, I just told MIT that you would be a great organization to teach mindfulness to kids and then have their brains scanned. You should say YES.” And we know what happened there…

So, Dr. John Gabrielli and Dr. Clemens Bauer led the study. They were interested in the neural mechanisms of the adolescent brain that are affected during mindfulness training, and how any possible changes correlate with behavior and function. For the first time EVER, fMRI scans of middle-schoolers brains were evaluated to answer these questions.

The second published paper about this study is entitled:

"Mindfulness training preserves sustained attention and resting state anticorrelation between default-mode network and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex: a randomized controlled trial." [View PDF]

That is a mouthful! Don’t worry, we’re going to break it down.

The researchers were interested in learning if mindfulness training in children would enhance cognitive control or executive function. These processes are important for maintaining attention and play a significant role in school performance and behavioral problems. A unique part of this study was that, for the first time, they would be assessing the underlying brain plasticity associated with mindfulness-driven gains in sustained attention.

This study was conducted at the Boston Collegiate Charter School in the community of Dorchester, MA with 100 6th grade students. They participated in a randomized controlled trial of either an 8-week mindfulness program (by Calmer Choice) or a computer coding program.

The students were randomly assigned to each group and were assessed on 3 measures:

  1. Sustained Attention: By playing a long and boring game without getting distracted, and used the MAAS Mindful Awareness Attention Scale.
  2. Stress: By filling out the perceived stress scale.
  3. Emotional Reactivity: By using a picture matching task where angry, sad, and happy faces appeared while they were being scanned in an MRI.

At baseline, there were no differences between the groups on the three measures.

Following the interventions, research showed:

Sustained Attention PerformancePerceived StressEmotional Reactivity (MRI scans)
Mindfulness Group
- Preserved performance
- Increased anticorrelation in the DMN-CEN*
- Reduction in stress- Reduced activity in the amygdala toward fearful faces and perceived stress.
Coding Group- Declined attentional performance
- Decreased anticorrelation in the DMN-CEN*
- Significant increase in stress- No change

*DMN-CEN is the Default Mode Network- Central Executive Network- The DMN is like daydreaming or mind wandering and the CEN is where we are able to focus on a task. In order to have sustained attention, there needs to be an increase in the CEN and a decrease in the DMN. The increased anti-correlation between the two means that there is an ability to focus on the task at hand and to suppress the distractions.

It is important to note that the post-testing of all these students was during a typically stressful time in the academic year: state testing. The observations and results suggest that mindfulness may help to buffer these increases in stress and is a protective factor for students.

In a nutshell, the results indicate that the Calmer Choice mindfulness program for Middle Schoolers:

  • Enhances cognitive control
  • Preserves attentional abilities
  • Reduces stress
  • Makes the brain less reactive to distress
  • Reduces mind-wandering
  • Boosts cognitive flexibility

After this amazing endeavor, Dr. Gabrielli, Dr. Bauer, and their team were so blown away by the results that Dr. Bauer took the Calmer Choice teacher training program! He wanted to see what we were doing to make such significant positive changes in adolescent brains.

It is ironic to note that in the creation of this 4 part series about Calmer Choice research, that we have yet another study in the pipeline! This time we are looking at the effects of our adult mindfulness program with Tufts University School of Occupational Therapy. So, stay tuned!

The incredible research described in this series has helped to elevate our standing as an evidence-based program for social-emotional learning in schools. It has helped guide our curriculum development and the expansion of our programs. We have embraced the research process as the foundation of our integrity and the legacy of our organization.