The science of mindfulness is an exciting development in neuroscientific research. On this page are posted brief synopses of key studies in the field, followed by a brief summary.
Scientific support of meditation and mindfulness
The net effect of these studies suggest that first, there are clear and measurable neurophysiological indicators associated with meditation. Some of these studies have measured actual brain tissue growth associated with meditation, while others have measured sustained changes in levels of functional activity. Studies comparing meditators have demonstrated scientifically significant differences in the brain in the very areas associated with mindfulness skills, such as areas associated with greater self-control and inhibition of impulses, improved regulation of emotion and decrease of reactivity, decrease in negative emotions and increase in positive emotions.
But they have also demonstrated unexpected differences such as the slowing of age-related cognitive decline including better memory, perceptual speed, decision-making, executive functions, and learning ability in meditators compared to non-meditators.
Scientific experiments (randomized, controlled) have also shown improvement either in disease outcome (such as improved immune function) or behavior related to outcome – in conditions such as asthma, chronic pain, cancer, diabetes, chronic fatigue, smoking, insomnia, irritable bowel, addictions and eating disorders.
Areas of the brain that have been demonstrated to change with meditation include positive change in the left prefrontal cortex (LPFC) (happy emotions, energy and motivation), anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) (attention, motivation, and emotion regulation), hippocampus (emotional regulation, learning and memory), anterior insulae and sensory motor cortex (integrating emotional processes, tracking visceral and gut sensations in the service of improved social intelligence and empathy). Beneficial negative changes have been found as in the decreased activity of the right prefrontal cortex (RPFC) (associated with depression and anxiety), amygdala (fear responsive, reactivity), anterior insulae (decreased size associated with significant pathologies including clinical depression, severe anxiety, increased stress and PTSD.
Functional Brain Mapping of the Relaxation Response and Meditation
Sara Lazar et al. reported in 20001 a strongly significant finding of brain activation (up to p < 10-7) in numerous regions of the brain in experienced meditators, including structures involved in attention (frontal & parietal cortex), emotional arousal and regulation (anterior cingulate, amygdala, midbrain & hypothalamus). In other words meditation consistently activates distinct regions in the brain.
Measurable (statistically significant) difference in brain activity and growth of brain tissue in experienced meditators in the areas of the brain that control attention (frontal and parietal cortex), emotional regulation and arousal (reactivity) (anterior cingulate, amygdala (reduction of tissue in this stress-related brain center), midbrain and hypothalamus)
Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation
An article by neuroscientist Richard Davidson et al. (2003)2 associated significantly stronger immune responsein meditators to flu vaccine (compared to non-meditators) and anterior left brain activation. The subjects were participants in an 8-week program on meditation. Immune response was measured by antibody titer to flu vaccine. This study points to the likelihood that the effects of meditation reach deep into the neurophysiological systems of the human body in a positive way. This study also measured brain electrical activity, and the authors suggest that anterior left brain activation is suggestive of stronger capacity to adapt to negative emotion and the generation of positive emotion.
Measurable (statistically significant) stronger immune response in meditators to flu vaccine, measured by the amount of antibody
Meditation Experience is Associated with Increased Cortical Thickness
Sara Lazar et al. reported in 20053 that meditation correlated with an increased cortical thickness (right hemisphere) offsetting age-related frontal cortical thinning (loss of brain cells). Specifically mentioned were parts of the brain associated with meditation such as attention & bodily awareness (prefrontal cortex and insula). What is important about this study is the scientific demonstration that meditation actually causes the structure of the brain to change, in areas that psychologists now know to be extremely important in emotional regulation and social processing.
Meditation actually causes the structure of the brain to change. Measured pre- and post- meditation training, areas of the brain where cortical tissue thickened were those associated with attention, bodily awareness, emotional regulation, and social processing (right hemisphere, prefrontal cortex and insula)
In 2005, at the Mind Life Conference at Johns Hopkins University, Wolf Singer (Max Planck Institute for Brain Research) presents to the Dalai Lama his research on meditation and the brain. Given the highly distributed nature of the brain system, a key function of the brain is to organize scattered or distributed aspects of a given event or percept, drawing upon different regions in the brain that process the features of that event or percept. Singer suggests that when such binding or organization is taking place neurons fire in a synchronous, oscillatory pattern that is characteristic of attentiveness. Meditation has been found to be associated with this type of brain activity that is associated with mental coherence and higher levels of brain activity and efficiency.
Meditation is associated with brain activity we could call coherence and organization, activity that allows the brain to operate at its highest level and most efficiently.
Long-Term Meditation is Associated with Increased Gray Matter Density in the Brain Stem
Vestergaard-Poulsen et. Al. reported in 20094 that they found changes in the structure of the lower brainstem, by density (versus volume) as well as in the superior and inferior gyrus. Combined with previous studies that demonstrated that meditation improved vagal tone (heart rate, blood pressure) and improved immune response, their study added another piece of the puzzle to a complex brain / immune system / stress response / emotional processing. In other words, meditation increasingly looks like it taps into deep and powerful pathways in the brain, that make a person more likely to be able to resist stress and function alertly.
Meditation taps into deep and powerful pathways in the brain such as those associated with hardiness and resilience, stress resistance, and immune competence, including improving vagal tone (heart rate and blood pressure)
Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density.
Hölzel et al. demonstrated in 20115 long-term changes to the brain gray matter (cells & synapses) for people participating in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, specifically in the hippocampus as well as other brain structures including cerebellar. Like Davidson’s (2003) study these findings suggest that even a little bit of mindfulness practice can go a long way. They also demonstrate a pattern of expanding regions of brain involvement relevant to mindfulness activity.