Your Brain on Mindfulness Meditation

One of the most well-known and utilized tools in meditation and yoga is the practice of self-observation without judgment, or mindfulness. Swami Kripalu called self-observation without judgment “the highest form of spiritual practice.” Likewise, if you go to any yoga or meditation class you‘re likely to hear words like mindfulness and nonjudgmental awareness repeated throughout the class. But what do these terms really mean?

Mindfulness meditation has been defined by Jon-Kabat Zinn as “the ability to pay total attention to the present moment with a nonjudgmental awareness of the inner and/or outer experiences.” Kripalu Yoga teacher Richard Faulds (Shobhan) describes self-observation without judgment as “restraining the mind's tendency to grasp what is pleasant and push away what is painful—and produce a flowing state of choice-less awareness that enables you to remain intimate with what's going on inside you.”

Mindfulness, something once practiced only in more closeted meditation circles, has recently become a greater mainstream interest. Perhaps for this reason, research on mindfulness meditationhas increased considerably over the last decade. Even the National Institute for Health has grown increasingly more interested in mindfulness meditation, funding a number of large studies which investigate the effects of mindfulness on emotional and physical health outcomes.

Mindfulness Improves Physical, Mental, and Emotional Health

While mindfulness is in many ways a simple practice, it benefits are numerous. Physically, mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce cortisol and blood pressure, and to improve the immune system. Cognitively, mindfulness has been shown to decrease rumination and boost attention. Emotionally, mindfulness reduces emotional reactivity and improves resilience. While many of these studies are preliminary, they nonetheless begin to paint a powerful picture of the overall health benefits of mindfulness.

However tenuous these preliminary studies are, they are augmented by current neuroscientific research that reveals how mindfulness meditation can significantly change the brain. And these changes are not just seen in cave-dwelling monks—they also occur in average hardworking, child-raising folks—like most of us.

The Brain on Mindfulness

Research shows that, even in a short time, mindfulness meditation can change the brain. What kinds of changes in the brain does mindfulness produce? Well, first, mindfulness fortifies our ability to manage difficult emotions. Second, it alters the way we experience our sense of self. It is arguably these changes that contribute to many of the benefits reported by current research. Let’s take a closer look at how this occurs.

Mindfulness training has a notable impact on the limbic system, or the emotional system of the brain. Specifically, mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce activity in the amygdala, a region of the brain that determines how much stress we experience and that is central in modulating our fear responses. For example, people with a very active amygdala tend to experience more depression and anxiety.

Perhaps even more intriguing, however, is that mindfulness can actually change the size the amygdala. One study on overstressed businesspeople found that after eight weeks of mindfulness meditation training the size of the amygdala actually shrunk compared to those who were not practicing mindfulness. This reduction was correlated with less perceived stress. In those eight weeks subjects were actually able to change their brain and, consequently, reduce their stress.

Meditation's Impact on the PFC

Findings also show that mindfulness practices help the person reduce emotional reactivity by increasing activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC, a brain region particular to homo sapiens, which is in charge of activities such as decision making, planning, abstract thinking, and regulating emotions. People with post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, have an overactive amygdala and an underactive PFC. The result is high emotional arousal, and a low ability to manage it.

Several studies have indicated that mindfulness meditation improves PFC functioning. Specifically, a study showed that mindfulness practice increased activity in the PFC such that attention span improved. Another study revealed that mindfulness increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex—a part of the brain that is closely connected to the PFC and is correlated with empathy and decision making. As these regions show more activation subjects tend to report greater emotional stability and less reactivity.

Neuroscientific research has also found that mindfulness meditation changes how we experience ourselves in the world. Generally, we spend a lot of our day in the personal narrative of our life. We obsess about the future, we dwell on that conversation we had with our spouse last week, or last year, and we remain entrenched in the storyline of our life. Researchers call this the “default network” and it’s dominated by cortical midline structures (CMS). While this “default network” has its benefit, when we spend too much time in self-referential thinking, especially if we are caught up in negative thinking, it can lead to poor emotional and behavioral outcomes, including depression and anxiety.

Back to the Moment

Mindfulness practice is about attending to the present moment. It teaches us to notice how the body feels, right now, paying attention to the breath and observing, without grasping onto, our current state of mind. By definition, mindfulness moves us away from our personal narrative about how our life should be and into how life actually is, moment to moment.

It was no surprise to researchers that this practice would impact the brain. Through mindfulness practice, activity in the CMS, the part of the brain related to our personal narrative decreased, and activity in the insula, the part of the brain related to subjective awareness and body awareness, increased. Researchers postulate that this may contribute to some of the subjective benefits of mindfulness practice: When we move out of the story of our lives and into the actual lived experience of it, we feel better.

The bottom line? Mindfulness is an opportunity for the brain to strengthen and enhance itself—it’s like taking the brain to the gym. From our experience of working with health-care professionals—some of the most highly stressed individuals in today’s workforce—you don’t need to spend hours on a meditation cushion to reap the benefits of these practices. Our participants experience results with just five minutes a day of seated breath-awareness meditation or 10 minutes of mindful chair yoga. Ultimately, the impact comes from consistency of practice. Just as you wouldn’t expect to see much benefit if you went to the gym only once a week, the same is true of mindfulness training. It needs to be cultivated each day.

While the cushion is helpful in mindfulness meditation, mindfulness can be practiced at any time and in any situation. In every moment, we can choose to bring our attention back to the present and to know that when we do, we are actively involved in shaping our brains to foster more peace and inner ease. From this view, a touch of mindfulness practice each day becomes a tremendous investment in our physical, mental, and emotional health.

Angela Wilson, LMHC, RYT 500, is a Kripalu faculty member who has conducted research and written about the intersection between yoga, Western psychology, and science.

Full Bio and Programs