How mindfulness meditation changes the brain
Technologies such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and EEG (electroencephalography) make it possible for neuroscientists to see exactly what goes on in the brain, and these are being used to understand the effects of meditation. Studies shed light on exactly what happens during meditation, and how continued practice leads to lasting changes in the brain.
The brain changes throughout life according to what we do with it
Until the 1970s the prevailing scientific view was that brain remains static once we reach adulthood, that its functioning stays the same. Since then neuroscience has proved “neuroplasticity”, which means that the brain continues to form new neural connections throughout life. All experience in terms of what we feel, sense and think, can change the brain’s physical structure and its functional organisation. It follows therefore that the more we practice something, such as any type of meditation, corresponding changes will take place in the brain which will shape our personalities throughout life.
Mindfulness meditation in the brain: a non-technical explanation
As studies looking at the brain on meditation proliferate, scientists are helpfully producing more in the way of explanations that the average person will understand, excluding some of the complicated terminology. Nevertheless, much of the text is still quite technical, and so this is an attempt to explain how meditation works on the brain in simple language. All sources used for this summary are listed below.
Different types of meditation produce different effects on the brain. This post summarises the effects of mindfulness meditation on the brain, as it is one of the most popular types being practiced today.
Mindfulness meditation regulates our emotional reactivity
Our brains are wired in such a way there is a strong link between the bit that thinks about “me” and the bit that is responsible for the fight-or-flight response. This means that for much of the time, even if we may not be aware of it, we tend to react to any experience with anxiety about how it might endanger us. For a lot of the time, we are in defensive mode and tend to think something is wrong either with us or that which is around us.
Mindfulness meditation weakens this link over time, so that we reduce our instinctive emotional response to our fight-or-fight habits. The gradual weakening of the link means that we develop the ability to see sensations such as anxiety without responding so strongly to them, without judging them or intensifying their importance. We stop the auto-pilot every time some negative feeling arises so that it no longer means that it is the end of the world.
Thus with continued practice, we experience less stress moment to moment. This is one of the main ways that mindfulness meditation helps relieve stress, and the reason why it has been developed into therapies such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction that are being offered by health institutions.
“The strong, tightly held connection between the Me Center (specifically the unhelpful vmPFC – Ventromedial medial prefrontal cortex) and the bodily sensation/fear centers begins to break down.”
Exactly which element of mindfulness meditation produces this effect is still being explored, but some research indicates that the “labelling” technique within mindfulness meditation is responsible for this emotion regulation.
Labelling mental experience helps to regulate emotional reactivity
One of the techniques of mindfulness meditation is to observe all feelings, thoughts and sensations as they arise, and see them for what they are, i.e., mental phenomena that come and go, that are separate from one’s self. This is done as the practitioner learns to “label” everything they observe. For instance, it someone feels sad, they can identify that this is a feeling of sadness, and they are asked to label it as: “there is sadness”. They would not label it as “I am sad”, because the sadness comes and goes, but the “I” remains and can have a different feeling in another moment.
Brain research shows that this labelling technique may be what helps to weaken the link between “me” and the flight-or-fight response. As said in Creswell et al 2007, “affect labeling practices encourage individuals to treat affective states as “objects” of attention, thus promoting a certain amount of detachment from these negative states suggesting that mindfulness may reduce negative affect and promote greater physical health, in part, through labeling one’s feelings:
Mindfulness meditation makes us more rational
Brain scans have also shown that mindfulness meditation strengthens the link between the bit of our brains that is responsible for taking a logical, rational, balanced view of things (lateral prefrontal cortex), and the fight-or-flight fear centre.
This means that we react in a more measured way to our experience, taking into account more of the picture, with a greater sense of perspective. Overtime it helps us develop the capability to sense a negative feeling without automatically assuming there is something wrong with us, or to feel physical pain without making up horror stories about what it might mean.
This is a crucial factor in explaining one of most important effects of mindfulness meditation, which is to stop us from ruminating, or getting caught in repetitive cycles of negative thinking. As we take a more balanced and detached view on a situation, we also stop going over the same negative thoughts over and over again. Rumination has been identified as one of the most important indicators of the onset of depression and anxiety, and mindfulness mediation stops it in its tracks ( See Mindfulness meditation stops rumination – a danger to mental health).
Mindfulness meditation makes us more empathetic
Finally, mindfulness meditation strengthens links that help us to understand people and things that are dissimilar to us. This connection develops our ability to empathise with others and understand where they are coming from. Often we don’t intuitively understand someone, but with mindfulness meditation we learn to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and feel more for them.
This is also confirmed by studies that show how an 8-week mindfulness meditation course helps people become more compassionate than an active control group (see Can meditation really make us nicer people? Really?).
Gladdin, R., 2013, “This is your brain on meditation” http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/use-your-mind-change-your-brain/201305/is-your-brain-meditation
reswell, J.D. et al. (2007) Neural correlates of dispositional mindfulness during affect labeling. Psychosom. Med. 69, 560–565
Lutz, Antoine (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 12 (4):163–169.
Britta K. Hölzel, et al.Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 2011; 191 (1): 36 DOI: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
 Gladdin, R., 2013, “This is your brain on meditation” http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/use-your-mind-change-your-brain/201305/is-your-brain-meditation
 Creswell, J.D. et al. (2007) Neural correlates of dispositional mindfulness during affect labeling. Psychosom. Med. 69, 560–565