The practice of meditation has gained significant traction in the western world over the past decade. General meditation research has shown a positive impact on sleep, weight loss, mood, and focus.
But what are the biological reasons behind these transformations?
While neuroscientists continue to explore the neuroscience behind meditation, several important studies have found that mindfulness in particular creates several key changes in the brain. Learn all about the neuroscience of mediation in our free ebook, Retrain Your Brain.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Although by no means is mindfulness the only kind of meditation, its effects have been highly studied by scientists and is one of the easiest forms to practice. Mindfulness emphasizes presence and targeting one’s awareness to their own thoughts, actions, emotions, and motivations.¹
Some key elements of mindfulness are attention regulation, body awareness, and emotion regulation. Emotion regulation is the process of approaching an emotional reaction with non-biased acceptance and letting the feeling pass with time. Although these seem like abstract skills, they are actually easy to pick up and improve with practice.²
Changes Within the Brain
Studies in the field of contemplative neuroscience have explored the impacts of mindfulness on the structure and function of the brain. Overall, the results have shown that meditation creates several important neuroplastic changes.
Neuroplasticity is the phenomenon describing the brain responding to social and environmental influences and creating often long-lasting neurological changes. A quote from neuroscientist Richard Davidson describes the process:
“The brain is the one organ in our body that is built to change in response to experience; it is built to change in response to training. It’s a learning machine. It is what we call, using the language of neuroscience, “plastic.” The brain exhibits plasticity, meaning that it changes in response to experience.” ³
Mindfulness meditation is one method to trigger these changes. But what parts of the brain does it affect, and how?
Impacts of Mindfulness Meditation
Studies across the board have shown grey matter volume (GMV) increases in several key areas after meditation practice. Grey matter contains glial cells, which perform support and maintenance functions throughout the brain.
More specifically, GMV increased in specific areas that associate with complex cognition and higher function, such as the prefrontal, anterior, and posterior cingulate cortices. This increase is likely one reason why subjects who meditated experienced improved cognition, attention, and memory. ⁴
Other studies found increases in both white and grey matter (an overall increase in volume) in the frontopolar cortex, sensory cortex, and insula. These are regions associated with enhanced self and body awareness. ⁵
Significantly, these volume changes happened after a relatively short amount of time — in one replicated study, the subjects underwent an 8 week mindfulness retreat. This shows that meditation prompts great neuroplasticity quickly!
How Do I Practice Mindfulness Meditation?
It may be difficult at first, but after only 8 weeks of practice, there will be structural neurological changes in your brain.
1) Set time aside for mindfulness practice. Find a comfortable space. It doesn’t have to be extravagant, just a place that gives your access to your full self.
2) Set yourself up in a comfortable position. This can be sitting on the floor or in a chair. Either way, sit upright with cushions to prop up your spine so that it sits at a 90 degree angle. Relax your body and shoulders. Take deep belly breaths.
3) Be in the present moment. Don’t try to stop your mind from racing or wandering. Pay attention to the moment at hand. Don’t judge yourself in this process.
4) Judgements will pass. Let them exist in your space when you feel them. Then let them pass. Make a mental note about this.
5) Once you note that your mind wandered, let it shift back to the present. In a mindfulness practice, you will have to return back to the center.
6) Your mind will wander, but refrain from judgement. Let it drift back to the present moment slowly. Part of this is letting our mind wander off as needed, and come back “home” when it’s done.
7) Find a focus. Your breath is a good start since it’s an entryway for meditation.
8) Now shift your focus to your target. What sensations do you feel? Hone in on the different senses: sound, smell, sight, taste, touch. Rather than thinking about these things, simply experience them as an entity, present in the given
moment. If your focus is your breath, what do you feel when you breathe in and out?
9) Focus on the quiet as well. If your mind starts to wander and you sense an internal monologue outside of experiencing the target, let your focus travel back to the focus.
10) Don’t beat yourself up. If your mind wanders, simply note this and then return back to the present moment with the initial intended focus.
1) Gaël Chételat et al., “Why Could Meditation Practice Help Promote Mental Health and Well-Being in Aging?,” Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy 10, no. 1 (June 22, 2018): 57, https://doi.org/10.1186/s13195-018-0388-5.
2) Britta K. Hölzel et al., “How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 6, no. 6 (November 1, 2011): 537–59, https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691611419671.
3) Richard Davidson, “Meditation and Neuroplasticity: Training Your Brain,” EXPLORE 1, no. 5 (September 1, 2005): 380–88, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.explore.2005.06.013.
4) Yi-Yuan Tang, Britta K. Hölzel, and Michael I. Posner, “The Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation,” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 16, no. 4 (April 2015): 213–25, https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3916.
5) Tracy Brandmeyer, Arnaud Delorme, and Helané Wahbeh, “The Neuroscience of Meditation: Classification, Phenomenology, Correlates, and Mechanisms,” in Progress in Brain Research, vol. 244 (Elsevier, 2019), 1–29, https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.pbr.2018.10.020.