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How Mindfulness Meditation Alters the Brain

Mindfulness quiets brain regions responsible for our sense of self

It's no secret that the age-old practice of meditation has gained mass appeal. Meditative practices are no longer just for health gurus and Yogis, they are now embraced by politicians, celebrities, athletes and even those of us who don't make the cover of US Weekly.

Meditation techniques has been shown to help alleviate anxiety, chronic pain, and even reduce symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Given these stress-reducing benefits, it's no wonder they are becoming so popular. Yet, despite meditation's broad appeal, we still don't have a complete grasp of why it works.

Take Mindfulness training as an example. Mindfulness is defined as a heightened awareness of the present moment that comes about through attending to your thoughts intentionally and non-judgmentally. People learn to think about their thoughts and emotions as passing events, rather than judging them or attributing importance to them. Doing so has been shown to have positive effects for chronic anxiety and depression. In short Mindfulness training reduces vulnerability to emotional distress.

But, how?

A new paper published this month in the journal Social Neuroscience provides some answers to this question. Researchers at the University Cape Town in South Africa asked people who had undergone an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) intervention to perform a 12 minute mindfulness meditation while their brains were scanned using fMRI. During the meditation, people were asked to open their awareness to present-moment bodily sensations, thoughts and emotions without judging or reacting to these mental and physical events.

When the researchers compared brain activation during mindfulness meditation to brain activation during a control task where the meditators randomly generate numbers in their head, they found that several brain areas associated with the monitoring of bodily states - including the insula and the prefrontal cortex - were actually less active during meditation. Interestingly, damage to the insula has been linked to less intense emotional reactions. Less activity in the insula during meditation, then, likely translates into less reactivity. And, as I have blogged about before, the prefrontal cortex is instrumental in supporting heightened self-consciousness. Less activity means reduced self-focus.

Up until now, there has been very little work done that characterizes how the brain changes during practices such as Mindfulness to induce an altered sense of self. As it happens, Mindfulness changes the brain in ways that lead us to distance ourselves from, well, our self.

"Mindfulness" is a capacity for heightened present-moment awareness that we all possess to a greater or lesser extent. Training this capacity seems to have a quieting effect on brain areas associated with our subjective appraisal of our self. By considering thoughts and feelings as transitory mental events that occur, but are separate from the self, people are able to lessen their hold on their worries and positive mental health outcomes follow.

For more on meditation and its effects on the brain, check out my book Choke!

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Ives-Deliperi, V. L. et al. (2011). The neural substrates of mindfulness: An fMRI investigation. Social Neuroscience.