In recent decades, mindfulness, defined as purposeful, nonjudgmental present moment awareness—essentially, not being distracted—has become a buzzword in neuroscience, psychology, and related mental health fields. Thirty-plus years of research finds that it is significantly associated with mental, physical, and emotional health.
More specifically, the positive potential benefits of mindfulness practice are more attentional control, more effective emotional regulation, enhanced social relationships, reduced risk for physical ailments, enhanced immune system functioning, and better sleep quality (seems like a long list, right? It's just the basic summary). While these findings generally refer to those who practice formal mindfulness meditation, the below specified physiological benefits also apply to those who practice mindfulness informally (albeit to a lesser degree), which consists of focusing all your attention on the activities of your everyday life, such as waiting in line, cooking, cleaning, or brushing one’s teeth.
In this post, I summarize how mindfulness practice is thought to change the brain according to the recent research (which is hard for the skeptics to refute!). Highlights are increased neurogenesis (creation of new neurons) and gray matter (generation of new nerve cells in the brain; essentially the reversing of ageing--meditators brains often appear younger than their non-meditating counterparts) in the brain’s frontal cortex (the part of the brain associated with decision-making and logical thinking) and sensory cortices (the part of the brain associated with sensing, feeling, noticing), the hippocampal formation (the part of the brain associated with memory; Holzel et al., 2011), and a reversal of the brain’s natural tendency to thin (Treadway & Lazar, 2009), especially in the anterior cingulate (the part of the brain associated with attention), the insula (the part of the brain associated with gut-responding), as well as decreased activity and reduced gray matter in the amygdala (the part of the brain associated with fear).
1. Frontal Cortex
Perhaps the most robust finding is that mindful states achieved through meditation, as well as informal mindfulness practices, boost frontal brain activity, especially the dorsolateral and medial prefrontal cortices. With time, this increased cortical strengthening bolsters our capacity for rational thought and intentional planning, promoting effective executive functioning, limbic modulation (emotional awareness and control), and impulse control as a function of the amount of time spent in meditative and mindful states.
Long-term mindfulness practice and mindful states are strongly correlated with reduced gray matter and activity in the amygdala, which considerably lessens fear-related and anxious arousal, facilitating physiological well-being and calmness. While the amygdala is by no means your enemy (it's an effective alarm system that protects us from danger), investigators believe these changes from mindfulness in the amygdala can buffer against trauma symptoms, or emotional abreactions to any adverse event capable of resulting in PTSD symptoms. To further support this robust finding, researchers found that mindful attention and awareness negatively correlated with a post-traumatic stress response, anxiety, and depression (Bernstein, Tanay, & Vujanovic, 2011).
Mindfulness encourages prefrontal regulation of limbic (emotional) responses, and may help explain part of why mindfulness is widely used in many psychotherapies (Lazar, 2005). This may explicate the finding that brainwave states associated with rest and relaxation, such as theta, tend to increase as a function of mindfulness, as relaxation likely results from decreased amygdala activation. This may be related to a connection between mindfulness practice and a lowered resting heartbeat, facilitating a more efficiently pumping organ by calming the sympathetic nervous system activation resulting from amygdala activation.
3. Social Neural Circuitry
Mindfulness practices were found to be closely linked to relationship satisfaction (Atkinson, 2013). Seventeen studies found that people with extensive experience in mindfulness practices have developed more brain gray matter in socially germane areas of the brain compared to controls that did not practice mindfulness, providing convincing evidence for the vital role mindfulness often plays in establishing and maintaining emotionally nourishing relationships (Siegel, 2007).
Specifically, this refers to a calmer and regulated amygdala, increased levels of the bonding hormones oxytocin and vasopressin (Siegel, 2007), a more sensitive fusiform face area (the part of the brain associated with accurate facial recognition and reading the emotions on people’s faces), more sensitive dopamine (the neurotransmitter in the brain linked to pleasure) reward pathway associated with social interaction, and lastly, enhanced functioning of the mirror neurons (more connective and attuned relating to others) in the temporal sulcus (the part of the brain associated with processing sounds) (Atkinson, 2013).
Investigators have also found increases in cortical thickness in the left temporal gyrus (the part of the brain also associated with processing sounds). This suggests enhanced ability to perceive emotions in others, employ and understand language, and process auditory stimuli are a product of mindfulness meditation; all are necessary for adept social functioning and enhanced relating with others (Treadway & Lazar, 2009).
The hippocampus, where our memories reside, also develops new neurons as you practice, helping us remember and store important social interactions and enhance overall cognitive functioning. (FYI, the "sulcus" refers to the inside parts of curvatures in the brain, and the "gyrus" refers to the outside parts of the curvatures in the brain.)
4. Anterior Cingulate Cortex
Mindfulness increases activation in the anterior subdivision of the cingulate cortex, which plays a key role in motivation, attentional capacity, and motor control (Treadway & Lazar, 2009; Zeidan, 2015). This ultimately increases one’s ability to sustain uninterrupted attention on cognitive tasks, and may contribute to enhanced limbic (emotional) control or affect regulation, especially of painful emotions (Siegel, 2007; Lazar, 2005; Treadway & Lazar, 2009). Given that tech behemoths like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook are warring for our attention, this benefit can help you reclaim this precious resource.
The insula is the home of interoception (the internal sense of your body), associated with “gut” instinctual or visceral feelings and responses. It is found to be a key region in registering body sensations and how we perceive ourselves physically. Perhaps the increased activation during mindfulness reflects a meditator’s careful (mindful) attention to ever-changing internal (physical) sensations (Treadway & Lazar, 2009).
There are also studies showing that the insula’s gray matter, especially in the sub-region, is lower for those diagnosed with schizophrenia compared to the general population. This seems logical, as a large part of schizophrenia symptoms reflect a lack of mindfulness, such as hallucinations and poor attentional control.
There are likely other key areas of the brain mindfulness alters that I did not cover here. Let’s not lose sight, however, that brain research can be limited. As a result, the found activations can mean many different things. Still, it is clear that the mindfulness studies generally reflect remarkably significant, positive, and long-term effects on brain structure that contribute to the feelings of calm and well-being we all want.
Across studies, long-term meditators demonstrated more cortical thickness overall, especially in the above areas mentioned: anterior insula, sensory cortex, and prefrontal cortices. While I would advocate practicing mindfulness even if the salutary effects weren’t so robustly examined and documented, the ability for it to increase the thickness of your brain and protect against normal age-related brain thinning linked to dementia, in itself, is an especially compelling reason to practice!
This post is for educational purposes and should not to substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional. Copyright: Jason Linder, LMFT, 2019
Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C., Wasserman, R. J., Gray, J. R., Greve D., Treadway, M. T. et al., (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuro-report 16(17):1893–1897.
Lazar, S. W. (2005). Mindfulness research. In R. D. Siegel, P. R. Fulton, (Eds.), Mindfulness and psychotherapy (pp. 220–238). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.
Treadway, M. T., & Lazar, S. W. (2009). The neurobiology of mindfulness. In Clinical handbook of mindfulness(pp. 45-57). Springer New York.
Zeidan, F. (2015). The neurobiology of mindfulness meditation. Handbook of mindfulness: Theory, research, and practice.
Hölzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago, D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on psychological science, 6(6), 537-559.
Siegel, D. J. (2007). Mindfulness training and neural integration: Differentiation of distinct streams of awareness and the cultivation of well-being. Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience, 2, 259 –263.
Atkinson, B. J. (2013). "Mindfulness training and the cultivation of secure, satisfying couple relationships." Couple And Family Psychology: Research And Practice2, no. 2: 73-94.
Bernstein, A., Tanay, G., & Vujanovic, A. A. (2011). Concurrent relations between mindful attention and awareness and psychopathology among trauma-exposed adults: Preliminary evidence of transdiagnostic resilience. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 25(2), 99-113.