What Neuroscience has to say about mindfulness meditation
We all have a friend who is passionate about meditation and is constantly annoying us with his spiritual gibberish. Whether it be comments about our unhealthy addiction to emotional drama, or a calm knowing reaction to any of our first-world problems, he never stops trying to get us to “just give it a try”. I know all this, because, well…I am that friend!
So what is meditation, and why are people like me such big fans?
Mindfulness meditation 101
When it comes to meditation there is a lot of different practices coming from several spiritual traditions, such as mantra meditation, visualization, or even yoga, tai chi and chi gong. In this article I will focus only on the method of mindfulness.
Despite misconceptions, mindfulness is not about emptying your mind from all thoughts, but instead about being in the present. It requires both the regulation of focus on immediate experience, such as sensations, emotions, body posture or your stream of thoughts; and the ability to approach one’s experience with openness and acceptance.
In practice, it involves a three-step mental process:
- Focus your attention on a particular target (your breath, a sound, a sensation or the stream of your thoughts);
- Notice when your attention has wondered away from the target;
- Bring your attention back to the target.
Observe your experience without judging what is happening and with a curiosity that allow you to identify patterns in your thoughts and feelings, without being tangled and caught up by them. This will thus strengthen your attention and lead to a clearer mind and a more peaceful outlook.
Meditation can be seen as taking care of your mind in the same way that physical exercise is taking care of your body. If you are like me (don’t fool yourself), master in over-thinking, chronically unsatisfied, and egocentric (i.e. human), meditation could help you thanks to three main mechanisms:
- enhanced attention control
- improved emotion regulation
- altered self-awareness
Attentional Clarity in a Chaotic World
Concerning attention performance, researchers are shown that only three months of meditation training (20 min a day) can improve our ability to focus on something important and tune out unimportant details, a part of our attention called orienting and conflict monitoring attention . In addition to that, if you train longer, like expert meditators, your sustained attention will improve, which means you will be able to better focus on one specific task for a longer period of time without being distracted. Rather useful to get things done!
Thus, those scientists think these progresses are done by creating functional and structural changes in the anterior cingulate cortex – the central station of our brain, involved in the processing of internal and external stimuli, like a traffic controller, assigning appropriate control to other areas in the brain. Simply put: More connections between neurons inside this brain region (grey matter), more connections with other distant brain areas (white matter) and more activity!
You ever see an angry meditator? Exactly!
But that’s not all. Mindfulness meditation improves as well the way we regulate our emotions , lowering the frequency and intensity of our negative affects and improving our positive mood states.
There is increasing evidence that meditating strengthens the link between the brain region responsible for high order thinking (the prefrontal cortex) and the one integral to fear, anxiety, and emotional arousal (the amygdala). The story goes: more connections between neurons in the prefrontal cortex, more connections from this brain region to the amygdala, which lead to a greater control and modulation of the activity of the second one by the first one.
Interestingly, this process seems to appear in beginners who might need more conscious effort at first to overcome their habitual way to react to an emotion. But in experienced meditators, who do not need any effort anymore, there seems to be a reduced control by the prefrontal cortex, replaced by an integrated unconscious regulation, which might reflect a more automatic way and a better acceptance of their experience.
To become a Jedi, know yourself you must
Self-awareness is all about knowing your emotions, your personal strengths and weaknesses, and having a strong sense of your own worth. And guess what? Surprise! Mindfulness training has been reported to be associated with a more positive self-representation, higher self-esteem and higher acceptance of oneself. Who doesn’t wish to be more comfortable in themselves?
Some neuro-scientific studies  have shown that the brain region involved in our awareness of our body and emotions (the insula) is larger and more active in experienced meditators. An interpretation could be that they can more precisely and more quickly identify their emotions, by linking them to the body sensations that are arousing when they are experiencing them.
Furthermore, their default mode network, a group of brain structures active when we are at rest, not performing a task or day-dreaming, is less active, suggesting a lower self-referential processing and less mind-wandering.
So… When do you start?
You got it now, there is emerging proof that mindfulness might cause neuroplastic changes in the structures and functions of brain regions involved in the regulation of attention, emotion and self-awareness. But it is important to keep in mind that the study of the neural mechanisms underlying meditation is still a young research field. A lot of studies lack methodological quality and the interpretations of the results are often drawn post-analysis due to the lack of elaborated theories. Therefore their conclusions must be taken with care. That being said, there are more and more controlled longitudinal studies to check on long effects of meditation training, so we are slowly getting there.
I have been talking about how meditation can improve several cognitive skills, but I want to emphasize that mindfulness is not just a technique for cognitive enhancement and stress reduction, designed to create more productive individuals. It should not be, in my opinion, about finding a way to better cope and adapt to the stresses and strains of our competitive and fast-paced modern world without questioning it, but instead gaining a new conscious point of view and a better understanding of yourself and other people, which is a good start for a real positive change. Are you aware that you can also cultivate your empathy by meditating?
So now you know what you have to do next time you meet ‘this’ friend, frankly apologize, keep the mutterings down, listen to him. And pay for his cucumber-rosemary herbal infusion.
Bonus: Why neuroscientists should meditate?
In a previous blog post, Stefan talked about the neuroscience of wisdom, and how is nearly nonexistent. What a shame! But what about wisdom in neuroscience? Nonexistent as well, as some provocative detractor could claim? No… It can’t be! But still, what neuroscientists could do to silence this rude and inappropriate statement by becoming even wiser? Well the answer is: meditate!
Jokes aside, one purpose of meditation is the careful observation of one’s own mind. It gives a ‘subjective’ first-person perspective to investigate it. And if you are still not comfortable adhering to any spiritual philosophy, you have to know that mindfulness meditation can be learn and discussed in a secular context. As a neuroscientist studying the brain through the third-person scientific perspective, combining these two complementary approaches could be of enormous value in guiding the future research in neuroscience, bringing back together two types of knowledge that can help each other out. Understanding the relation between mind and brain could certainly use new perspectives on the subject, in order to better grasp its huge complexity.