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What Does Mindfulness Meditation Do to Your Brain?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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As you read this, wiggle your toes. Feel the way they push against your shoes, and the weight of your feet on the floor. Really think about what your feet feel like right now – their heaviness.

If you’ve never heard of mindfulness meditation, congratulations, you’ve just done a few moments of it. More people than ever are doing some form of this stress-busting meditation, and researchers are discovering it has some quite extraordinary effects on the brains of those who do it regularly.

Originally an ancient Buddhist meditation technique, in recent years mindfulness has evolved into a range of secular therapies and courses, most of them focused on being aware of the present moment and simply noticing feelings and thoughts as they come and go.

Credit: Sebastien Wiertz via Flickr

It’s been accepted as a useful therapy for anxiety and depression for around a decade, and mindfulness websites like GetSomeHeadSpace.com are attracting millions of subscribers. It’s being explored by schools, pro sports teams and military units to enhance performance, and is showing promise as a way of helping sufferers of chronic pain, addiction and tinnitus, too. There is even some evidence that mindfulness can help with the symptoms of certain physical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV.

Yet until recently little was known about how a few hours of quiet reflection each week could lead to such an intriguing range of mental and physical effects. Now, as the popularity of mindfulness grows, brain imaging techniques are revealing that this ancient practice can profoundly change the way different regions of the brain communicate with each other – and therefore how we think – permanently.

Mindfulness practice and expertise is associated with a decreased volume of grey matter in the amygdala (red), a key stress-responding region. (Image courtesy of Adrienne Taren)

No fear
MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s “fight or flight” center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress.

As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – becomes thicker.

The “functional connectivity” between these regions – i.e. how often they are activated together – also changes. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger.

The scale of these changes correlate with the number of hours of meditation practice a person has done, says Adrienne Taren, a researcher studying mindfulness at the University of Pittsburgh.

“The picture we have is that mindfulness practice increases one’s ability to recruit higher order, pre-frontal cortex regions in order to down-regulate lower-order brain activity,” she says.

In other words, our more primal responses to stress seem to be superseded by more thoughtful ones.

Lots of activities can boost the size of various parts of the pre-frontal cortex – video games, for example – but it’s the disconnection of our mind from its “stress center” that seems to give rise to a range of physical as well as mental health benefits, says Taren.

“I’m definitely not saying mindfulness can cure HIV or prevent heart disease. But we do see a reduction in biomarkers of stress and inflammation. Markers like C-reactive proteins, interleukin 6 and cortisol – all of which are associated with disease.”

Feel the pain
Things get even more interesting when researchers study mindfulness experts experiencing pain. Advanced meditators report feeling significantly less pain than non-meditators. Yet scans of their brains show slightly more activity in areas associated with pain than the non-meditators.

“It doesn’t fit any of the classic models of pain relief, including drugs, where we see less activity in these areas,” says Joshua Grant, a postdoc at the Max Plank Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. The expert mindfulness meditators also showed “massive” reductions in activity in regions involved in appraising stimuli, emotion and memory, says Grant.

Again, two regions that are normally functionally connected, the anterior cingulate cortex (associated with the unpleasantness of pain) and parts of the prefrontal cortex, appear to become “uncoupled” in meditators.

“It seems Zen practitioners were able to remove or lessen the aversiveness of the stimulation – and thus the stressing nature of it – by altering the connectivity between two brain regions which are normally communicating with one another,” says Grant. “They certainly don’t seem to have blocked the experience. Rather, it seems they refrained from engaging in thought processes that make it painful.”

Credit: Balint Földesi via Flickr

Feeling Zen
It’s worth noting that although this study tested expert meditators, they were not in a meditative state – the pain-lessening effect is not something you have to work yourself up into a trance to achieve; instead, it seems to be a permanent change in their perception.

“We asked them specifically not to meditate,” says Grant. “There is just a huge difference in their brains. There is no question expert meditators’ baseline states are different.”

Other studies on expert meditators – that is, subjects with at least 40,000 hours of mindfulness practice under their belt – discovered that their resting brain looks similar, when scanned, to the way a normal person’s does when he or she is meditating.

At this level of expertise, the pre-frontal cortex is no longer bigger than expected. In fact, its size and activity start to decrease again, says Taren. “It’s as if that way of thinking has becomes the default, it is automatic – it doesn’t require any concentration.”

There’s still much to discover, especially in terms of what is happening when the brain comprehends the present moment, and what other effects mindfulness might have on people. Research on the technique is still in its infancy, and the imprecision of brain imaging means researchers have to make assumptions about what different regions of the brain are doing.

Both Grant and Taren, and others, are in the middle of large, unprecedented studies that aim to isolate the effects of mindfulness from other methods of stress-relief, and track exactly how the brain changes over a long period of meditation practice.

“I’m really excited about the effects of mindfulness,” says Taren. “It’s been great to see it move away from being a spiritual thing towards proper science and clinical evidence, as stress is a huge problem and has a huge impact on many people’s health. Being able to take time out and focus our mind is increasingly important.”

Perhaps it is the new age, quasi-spiritual connotations of meditation that have so far prevented mindfulness from being hailed as an antidote to our increasingly frantic world. Research is helping overcome this perception, and ten minutes of mindfulness could soon become an accepted, stress-busting part of our daily health regimen, just like going to the gym or brushing our teeth.

Tom Ireland About the Author: Tom Ireland is managing editor at the Society of Biology and a freelance journalist covering mostly health, education and science. Follow on Twitter @Tom_J_Ireland.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 10 Comments

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  1. 1. JenJohnson 8:33 am 06/13/2014

    I agree! I am a mindfulness-based psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher, and many of my clients and students experience significant relief from physical and emotional suffering and an increased sense of joy and well-being through practicing mindfulness! It’s exciting to see mindfulness become more widely accepted as a practice to support well-being and health.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Saijanai 4:16 am 06/14/2014

    Overall functional connectivity is reduced by mindfulness and concentrative practices:

    http://www.amaye.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/med-connectivity-EEG-tomog.pdf

    “The globally reduced functional interdependence between brain regions in meditation suggests that interaction between the self process functions is minimized, and that constraints on the self process by other processes are minimized, thereby leading to the subjective experience of non-involvement, detachment and letting go, as well as of all-oneness and dissolution of ego borders during meditation.”

    This often leads to a reduced “sense of self” which is celebrated by people who believe a certain interpretation of Buddhism that “self is illusory”…

    “Ego death” is a big thing in such circles, and in a very real sense, most forms of meditation cause physical changes that lead in that direction.

    Not all meditation practices go in that direction, however. Some lead to enhanced functional connectivity, especially between the regions of the brain thought to be responsible for sense-of-self, and the rest of the brain.

    Interestingly enough, when you make direct comparisons of the effects on PTSD of people who do functional-connectivity-reducing practices, with people who do functional-connectivity-increasing practices, the effect-size can approach being literally a magnitude larger, and the effects on PTSD can show up in as little as 10 days, not 90 days.

    For some reason, scientific american blogs never mention practices that are nearly 10x more effective AND nearly 10x faster-acting.

    Why is that?

    Link to this
  3. 3. StacyC 9:35 am 06/14/2014

    Meditation practice has been enormously beneficial to me. I feel much calmer, happier and far less prone to anger or other negative emotions. Everything feels easier.

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  4. 4. JulienL 9:54 am 06/15/2014

    I regularly recommend mindfulness meditation to my patients and it almost always benefits them in some way. One good resource I often direct them to is meditationshift.com, but there are a lot out there now. Good article.

    Link to this
  5. 5. DrgurujiA 3:11 pm 06/15/2014

    From the observations that I have had both in practicing mantra based meditation as well as teaching mantra based meditation, that while mindfulness meditation certainly relaxes the mind body it keeps the mind in the realm of thoughts. Because the conception of the self is no bigger than the brain or thoughts in a mindfulness-based practice I find the individual overtime becomes bored with mindfulness-based practices and tends to get stuck once again in ego realm. While I do understand some peoples knee-jerk reaction against spiritual vocabulary it nevertheless is necessary for people to have a conception of something bigger than themselves in order to fully be able to find why the source of their neurotic thinking and behavior continues to recur.

    Please don’t get me wrong I think all forms of meditation have the potential to benefit mankind enormously. I’m just putting my vote in the ring for a powerful form of meditation called mantra-based practice which comes with a deep philosophy that helps the mind to understand its place in the larger realms of life.

    Do we de-stress? Or do we prevent stress?

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  6. 6. Dr_Zinj 11:04 am 06/18/2014

    I’m uncertain that the numbers in this article are correct.
    The requirement for meditative expertise was given as. “at least 40,000 hours of mindfulness practice.”
    At one hour per day, that’s 109 years. Even at 2 hours per day, that’s almost 55 years. Assuming they started at 10 years of age, that would put those experts at 65 years of age or older. Where their brain sizes compared with non-meditators of the same age? If not, that would be a serious lapse as there is a considerable difference in the brains of someone at retirement age or older, and someone who only recently graduated from 4 years of college.

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  7. 7. RickMedSciWrite 6:27 pm 06/19/2014

    UPenn’s Dr. Andrew Newberg published seminal books in 2001, 2010 and Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn published “Full Catastrophe Living” in 1990. Curious Newberg’s early work documenting meditation and new neural pathway development and Kabat-Zinn’s original research on mindfulness and pain, are not even mentioned in this article.

    Link to this
  8. 8. cosmicAnimal 11:52 am 06/23/2014

    I’ve been meditating going on 30 years, and it’s had many beneficial effects in helping me deal with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. I may not be alive if it were not for meditation and other spritual practices — or if was, I’d be in really terrible shape. However, I always came at it from a spiritual perspective, and imho doing so provides even more benefits to dealing with the the modern world and our neurotic society.

    No doubt the mainstream perception of Hippy and New Age “spiritual” flakiness has colored the rep of meditation and yoga for yer average Jane and Joe, but I’m not sure how I feel about the Western “scientific” appropriation of them, either. By stripping all spiritual content from the practice, it’s purpose is reduced from expanding one’s consciousness outward to envelop all beings and discover our essential unity and interconnectedness to being yet another narcissistic consumerist “health” pursuit and commodity.

    This already happening in the field of Psychgology, which I discovered a few years ago during a serious depression episode when I tried out modern therapy methods. What they were teaching was a very sanitized form of *Mindfulness*, sans any of the broader philosophy and psychology that should go along with it in Zen training. While I saw it helping people to some degree, like a single vitamin synthesized in a lab, it seemed to me to have had most of the life and vigor sucked out of it and thus reduced its full potential to really tranform people’s lives.

    The moral of the story? To modern therapists and anyone benefiting from stripped down mindfulness: pick up some books on Zen and Yoga, go to some real Zen or Yoga meditation classes, and discover how much better it is to eat a whole salad rather than a Flintstone vitamin. ;-)

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  9. 9. realmindfulness 10:42 am 06/24/2014

    I have been practicing mindfulness for 30 years, and recently been studying the sex and nastiness scandals in the USA Zen teacher community. (see realmindfulness.com for an intro to this). I was shocked and dismayed, as the “most hours” Mindfulness people out there were being dysfunctional children in their behaviour.

    This has led me to conclude that the way Mindfulness is mostly traditionally taught is as a repressive technique. Which isn’t much use really.

    Mindfulness makes us more aware. When we become more aware it is like a light switch being gradually turned on. We see more. And the thing that heaves into view more and more, the more aware we become, is the subconcious. My subconscious. I can guarantee to all of you that this is not a peaceful happening!

    If you don’t allow the subconcious into awareness, then your Mindfulness practice becomes repressive. There’s not much out there by Zen teachers admitting this.

    So using Zen teachers with 1000′s of hours practice for research raises questions for me. You can rub a stone with sandpaper for 1000 years and you won’t make a mirror.

    Link to this
  10. 10. ungun 4:15 pm 07/7/2014

    I’ve been doing this on and on for more than 40 years. I taught it to a woman suffering from pain from endometriosis, it worked rather well for her, at least she could get some sleep. I don’t believe it had all that many benefits as described in the blog. It does help me get to sleep sometimes and a little with stress.

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