The biology of meditation. How meditating can change your brain

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
 some momentary awareness comes
 as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
 [...]
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
Because each has been sent
 as a guide from beyond.

The Guest House by Rumi 
Translation by Coleman Barks

Many of us are already familiar with what it means to meditate, in a broad sense, and we have often heard that meditation can improve our lives. Several books and articles have been written on the positive effects exerted by meditation on our bodies and minds. But what is the nature of meditation and how can it help us improve our mental states? More specifically, what happens at the level of neural networks, brain cells and molecules that results in all these beneficial actions upon meditating?

FIGURE 1 |Sigiriya rock located near the Dambulla town, in the Central Province, Sri Lanka. Own image.

An introduction to meditation ~ its styles and purposes

Meditation encompasses various emotional and attentional regulatory practices, which aim at improving an individual’s cognitive abilities. Many recent behavioral, electroencephalographic and neuroimaging studies have investigated the neuronal events related to meditation, in order to achieve an increased understanding of cognitive and affective neuroplasticity, attention and self-awareness, as well as for their possible clinical implications.

The video below shows the kind of brain changes meditation leads to, in a monk who is a long-term practitioner.

According to Raffone and Sirivasan (2010), a central feature of meditation is the regulation of attention, and as such, meditation practices can be classified into two main styles—focused attention (FA) and open monitoring (OM)—depending on how attentional processes are directed. While the FA (‘concentrative’) style is based on focusing attention on a given object in a sustained manner, the second style, OM (‘mindfulness-based’) meditation, involves the non-reactive monitoring of the content of ongoing experience. More specifically, mindfulness refers to being constantly aware of the way we perceive and monitor all mental processes, including perceptions, sensations, cognitions and affects.

FA meditation techniques imply, apart from sustaining the attention on an intended object, monitoring attentional focus, detecting distraction, disengaging attention from the source of distraction, and (re)directing attention (back) on the object. This kind of attentional stability and vividness is achieved through concentrated calmness or serene attention, denoted by the word Samatha (which literarily means quiescence) in the Buddhist contemplative tradition. Another technique which can be broadly included in the FA meditation is transcendental meditation, which centers on the repetition of a mantra.

Unlike FA meditation, OM meditation does not involve an explicit attentional focus, and therefore does not seem to be associated with brain areas that control sustained or focused attention. Instead, OM meditation engages brain regions implicated in vigilance, monitoring and detachment of attention from sources of distraction from the ongoing stream of experience. Therefore, OM meditation is based on detecting arising sensations and thoughts within an unrestricted ‘background’ of awareness, without a ‘grasping’ of these events in an explicitly selected focus. In the transition from a FA to an OM meditative state, the object as the primary focus is gradually replaced by an ‘effortless’ sustaining of an open background of awareness, without an explicit attentional selection. In the Buddhist tradition, the practice of Vipassana (insight) OM meditation requires, first of all, attentional stability and vividness (acuity), as developed in FA meditation, in order to achieve a deep and reliable introspection.

The ancient yogic practice of Yoga Nidra, which is less-known, and yet is becoming increasingly popular, can also fall into the category of OM meditation. It is said to reduce stress and improve sleep, and that it has the potential to engender a profound sense of joy and well-being.

Another type of OM meditation worth mentioning here is the loving-kindness meditation or non-referential compassion (also known as Mettā in the Pali language), which involves compassion-based mental training aimed at promoting empathy. Practicing this kind of meditation is believed to increase the capacity for forgiveness, connection to others and self-acceptance, and to boost well-being and reduce stress. For more detailed descriptions as well as a deeper and broader understanding of the neurological implications of these different meditation practices, I strongly encourage you to check out the reviews listed in the Reference section, especially Brandmeyer et al. (2019) and Raffone & Srinivasan (2010).

Of all these different kinds, mindfulness meditation, which originally stems from Buddhist meditation traditions, has received the most attention in neuroscience research over the last twenty years.

Research over the past two decades broadly supports the claim that mindfulness meditation — practiced widely for the reduction of stress and promotion of health — exerts beneficial effects on physical and mental health, and cognitive performance. 

Tang et al. (2015)

Sustained engagement with mindfulness meditative practices has been shown to have neurophysiological and psychological benefits. In healthy individuals, several months of mindfulness meditation practice correlates with improvements in self-regulation and subjective well-being. Even much shorter mindfulness meditation training, of a few days, has a positive impact on mood and executive functioning, while at the same time reducing fatigue and anxiety.

Brain structural changes following mindfulness meditation

Several recent studies have investigated the structural changes in the brain related to mindfulness meditation, and have reported alterations in cortical thickness, hippocampal volume, and grey-matter volume and/or density. However, before we dive into how meditation can change our brains, it should be mentioned that there are a few issues with the current state of meditation research. First of all, most of these studies have made cross-sectional comparisons between experienced meditators and controls. But only a few recent studies have investigated longitudinal changes in novice practitioners. These logitudinal studies are very important because they follow subjects over a long-term period of practice, and are thus able to determine whether changes induced by meditation training persist in the absence of continued practice. Therefore, more such studies would be required for a complete picture of the effects of meditation on mental health.

In addition, the studies on mindfulness meditation so far have generally included small sample sizes, of between 10 and 34 subjects per group, which leads to limitations in interpreting the results, as well as increases the chances of false-positives. Another prossible issue is that these studies use different research designs, measurements and type of mindfulness meditation. Hence, it comes as no surprise that the reported effects of meditation are diverse and cover multiple regions in the brain, including the cerebral cortex, subcortical grey and white matter, brain stem and cerebellum. That being said, these findings can also reflect the fact that the effects of meditation involve large-scale and interactive brain networks.

According to various fMRI studies, minfulness meditation exerts its effects primarily (though not exclusively) on a network of brain regions – the Default Mode Network (DMN). This network comprises structures in the medial prefrontal cortex (PFC), posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), anterior precuneus and inferior parietal lobule, which have been previously shown to have high activity during rest, mind wandering and conditions of stimulus-independent thought. These regions have been suggested to support different mechanisms by which an individual can ‘project’ themselves into another perspective.

When comparing meditators with naïve subjects, DMN regions, such as the medial PFC and PCC, have shown much less activity in meditators, across different types of meditation. This has been interpreted as indicating diminished self-referential processing. Experienced meditators also seem to exert stronger coupling between the PCC, dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and dorsolateral PFC, both at baseline and during meditation, which indicates stronger cognitive control over the function of the DMN.

Brewer et al. (2011) investigated brain activity in experienced meditators versus meditation-naïve controls as they performed several different mindfulness meditations (Concentration, Loving-Kindness, Choiceless Awareness). They found that the main nodes of the DNM (medial PFC and PCC) were relatively deactivated in experienced meditators across all meditation types (Figure 2). Moreover, functional connectivity analysis revealed increased coupling in experienced meditators between the PCC, dorsal ACC, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices, both at baseline and during meditation, as seen in Figure 3. This increased connectivity with medial PFC regions supports greater access of the default circuitry to information about internal states, because this region is also highly interconnected with limbic regions (such as insula and amygdala).

FIGURE 2 | Experienced meditators demonstrate decreased DMN activation during different meditation conditions: Choiceless Awareness (green bars), Loving-Kindness (red), and Concentration (blue) meditations. The decreased activation in PCC in meditators is common across different meditation types. Brain activation in meditators > controls is shown, collapsed across all meditations, relative to baseline (A and B). Activations in the left mPFC and PCC (C and D). Taken from Brewer et al. (2011)

FIGURE 3 | Experienced meditators show coactivation of mPFC, insula, and temporal lobes during meditation. Differential functional connectivity with mPFC seed region and left posterior insula is shown in meditators > controls: (A) at baseline and (B) during meditation. (C) Connectivity z-scores (±SD) are shown for left posterior insula. Choiceless Awareness (green bars), Loving-Kindness (red), and Concentration (blue) meditation conditions. Taken from Brewer et al. (2011)

Meditators also reported significantly less mind-wandering, which has been previously associated with activity in the DMN. Therefore, these results demonstrated that alterations in the DMN are related to reduction in mind-wandering. They also suggested that meditation practice may transform the resting-state experience into one that resembles a meditative state – a more present-centered default mode.

The findings from this study have several clinical implications, given that a number of pathological conditions have been associated with dysfunction within areas of the DMN, including depression. The self-referrential function of the DMN has pointed to the possibility that excessive rumination (negative inner preoccupation about the personal past, present and future) in depression involves excessive DMN activity as well as an inability to switch out of it, in response to external demands. Mindfulness meditation may prove useful in reducing distractive and ruminative thoughts and behaviors, and this ability may provide a unique mechanism by which mindfulness meditation reduces distress and improves mood.

In addition, meditation has also been shown to promote neuroplasticity, an important neuronal process that entails structural and functional brain adaptations in response to changes in environmental conditions. A key neurotrophin that promotes neuroplasticity is the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is usually found in abnormally low levels in various psychiatric and neurological disorders. Meditation has been shown to increase the levels of BDNF, thus promoting neuronal development, survival and plasticity, which in turn contribute to restoring the normal functioning of brain networks.

In sum, there is emerging evidence that mindfulness meditation might trigger neuroplastic changes in brain regions involved in the regulation of emotion and cognition. Although, as mentioned earlier, these studies often suffer from low methodological quality and present with speculative post-hoc interpretations, this is quite common in a new field of research. Thus, further research needs to use longitudinal, randomized and actively controlled research designs and larger sample sizes, as well as to concentrate on the biological factors implicated in mental health, in order to advance the understanding of how mindfulness meditation interacts with the brain. If supported by rigorous research, the practice of mindfulness meditation might be a promising therapeutic approach for clinical disorders, such as depression, and might facilitate the cultivation of a healthy mind and improved well-being.

For the readers interested in the effects of meditation on depression, please visit my article The biological implications of meditation practices in the treatment of depression.

References

  • Brandmeyer, T., Delorme, A., Wahbeh, H. (2019). Chapter 1 – The neuroscience of meditation: classification, phenomenology, correlates, and mechanisms, Editor(s): Narayanan Srinivasan, Progress in Brain Research, Elsevier, 244: 1-29. doi: org/10.1016/bs.pbr.2018.10.020
  • Brewer, J.A., Worhunsky, P.D., Gray, J.R., Tang, Y.Y., Weber, J., Kober, H. (2011). Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 108(50):20254-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1112029108
  • Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: past, present, and future. Clin Psychol Sci Pract 10:144–156
  • Heuschkel, K., & Kuypers, K.P.C. (2020). Depression, Mindfulness, and Psilocybin: Possible Complementary Effects of Mindfulness Meditation and Psilocybin in the Treatment of Depression. A Review. Front. Psychiatry, 11:224. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00224
  • Raffone, A., & Srinivasan, N. (2010). The exploration of meditation in the neuroscience of attention and consciousness. Cognitive Processing, 11:1-7. doi: 10.1007/s10339-009-0354-z.
  • Tang, Y.Y., Hölzel, B.K., Posner, M.I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nat Rev Neurosci, 16(4):213-25. doi: 10.1038/nrn3916
  • Zeidan, F., Johnson, S., Diamond, B., David, Z., & Goolkasian, P. (2010). Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition, 19, 597-605. doi: org/10.1016/j.concog.2010.03.014

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