The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness meditation has received the most attention in neuroscience research over the past two decades. Behavioral studies suggest that mindfulness meditation provides beneficial effects on a number of cognitive domains, including attention, memory, executive function and cognitive flexibility. Additionally, these effects have been found in multiple brain regions, including the cerebral cortex, subcortical grey and white matter, brain stem and cerebellum.

This finding is unsurprising because mindfulness practices do involve multiple aspects of mental function.

Fox et al. (2014) performed a meta-analysis of 21 neuroimaging studies that examined changes in brain structures related to mindfulness meditation. They found several brain regions that show consistent differences between meditators and non-meditators.

They include:

  • Prefrontal cortex (PFC) is an important area for higher-order thinking, processing of complex, abstract information, and metacognition. Results in this area across meditation styles are consistent with the idea that meditation engages, and possibly trains, metacognitive awareness.
  • Somatomotor cortex is the region that processes somatosensory information and motor information. It has been shown that long-term meditators have higher pain tolerance (which is equivalent to lower pain sensitivity) and they also have less perceived unpleasantness of painful stimuli than non-meditators.
  • Insula differences involved practitioners with an intensive, explicit focus on interoceptive body awareness, including attention to body posture, respiration, and temperature sensations.
  • Hippocampus appears to be critical for memory and contextualized emotional learning. This also relates to meditation’s effects on stress reduction. In animal studies, it has been shown that a supportive rearing environment can lead to structural changes in the hippocampus (e.g., increased density of glucocorticoid receptors) that have a protective effect against stress.
  • Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is crucial for self-control, focused problem-solving, and adaptive behavioral responses. Indeed, these processes are considered goals of the utmost importance in many meditation traditions. Both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies show enhanced activation of regions of the ACC in experienced meditators.
  • Orbitofrontalcortex(OFC) is richly connected to primary sensory regions as well as the limbic system, including the amygdala, striatum, and hypothalamus. Enhanced emotional regulation is consistent with reports on reducing stress and anxiety after meditation.

Mindfulness meditation influences our ability to concentrate, strengthen our emotion regulation skills, and enhance our self-awareness. In a meta-analysis study, Tang and colleagues (2015) propose a tentative model that explains the mechanisms and stages of how mindfulness meditation impacts self-regulation.

They suggest that better attention control is related to an increase in ACC and OFC activation in experienced meditators, so these people may make more conscious decisions and pay more attention during action execution. In addition, people reported lower intensity and frequency of negative emotions and improved positive mood states after practicing mindfulness meditation. This might indicate that they are more successful at dealing with negative emotions. Interestingly, areas of the medial PFC and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) show high activity during rest, mind wandering, and theory of mind, but they showed relatively little activity in meditators. One study reported an uncoupling of the right insula and medial PFC and increased connectivity of the right insula with dorsolateral PFC regions in individuals after mindfulness training. This might indicate a shift in self-referential processing from an affective or subjective valuation towards more self-detached and objective analysis of interoceptive and exteroceptive sensory events after meditation.

Potential Age-defying Effects of Mindfulness Meditation

Furthermore, mindfulness meditation might actually slow down the aging of the brain. In an inspiring study, Luders, Cherbuin, and Kurth (2015) compare the brains of long-term meditators with the brains of non-meditators. 

By correlating gray matter volume with age, they detect negative correlations within both groups of subjects, which, unsurprisingly, suggests that there is a decline in gray matter volume over time. However, they find that the slopes of the regression lines are steeper in non-meditators than in meditators. These results indicate that meditators generally have less age-related decline in gray matter compared to other people.

Source: Wharton Neuroscience Initiative