The Hipness of Mindfulness

When you hear the term “mindfulness meditation,” do you conjure up images of cross-legged, stoic monks enveloped in bright robes? Or do you think about young Silicon Valley professionals striving to reduce stress and increase attention in the workplace? Personally, I think about both. I have had a very traditional meditation practice since 2010, but I also recognize that mindfulness is hip right now. Not only is mindfulness becoming more popular and mainstream, but research that focuses on the neuroscience of mindfulness meditation is also trending. I recently read a wonderful 2015 review on mindfulness neuroscience and was inspired to discuss what scientists think is going on in the brain when we practice mindfulness.

Moving meditation… Image credit

Mindfulness Meditation Defined

First, what is mindfulness meditation? Or, to get even more basic, what is meditation? According to the review linked above, meditation has three main components: 1) attention control, 2) emotion regulation, and 3) self-awareness. Practicing these tenants is thought to lead to self-regulation.

Yoga, tai chi and qigong are all types of meditation with a movement aspect, while sitting meditation and mantra meditation are physically quieter. Mindfulness can be described as a non-judgmental attention to present-moment experiences. It is, as far as I know, an important component of any meditation practice.

Affected Areas of the Brain

Since the 1990s, researchers have sought to understand how mindfulness meditation might impact mental and physical health conditions. These studies have focused on the health impacts of both traditional Buddhist practices (such as Vipassana, Dzogchen and Zen) and modern mindfulness practices (such as mindfulness-based stress reduction). Although the field is still in its infancy and it has proven challenging to design and execute robust studies, several neurological findings have emerged from mindfulness research over the past three decades.

Nothing I’ve read from the field of neurology suggests that its concepts are simple. This holds true for how the brain seems to respond to mindfulness meditation. The 2015 mindfulness meditation review stresses more than once that “the effects of meditation might involve large-scale brain networks,” meaning that mindfulness doesn’t just alter, for example, cortical thickness or gray-matter density.

It makes sense that mindfulness training would affect large-scale networks, as many aspects of brain function are involved in its practice. Remember that the mindful brain must be engaged at the very least in attention control, emotional regulation and self-awareness, the three main aspects of mindfulness meditation I mentioned previously.

There are several areas of the brain that are consistently affected across research studies of mindfulness:

The frontopolar cortex, which could be associated with enhanced meta-awareness (basically the experience of being aware of being aware);

The sensory cortices and insula, regions that are related to body awareness;

The hippocampus, involved in memory processes;

The anterior cingulate, mid-cingulate, and orbitofrontal cortices, which are associated with self- and emotional regulation; and

The superior longitudinal fasciculus and corpus callosum, which are involved in hemispherical communication (connecting across large regions of the brain).

The authors of the review suggest that readers take in these findings with caution. Although a region like the hippocampus might be “altered” by mindfulness meditation, what does this alteration actually mean in terms of the lived experience of the meditator? To answer this sort of question, we need more studies like this one, which actually investigated a potential correlation between brainstem gray matter concentration and measures of psychological well-being in those undergoing mindfulness training.

Stay tuned! In my next article I’ll discuss how mindfulness impacts functional aspects of the brain, focusing on the three tenants of mindfulness meditation: attention control, emotional regulation and self-awareness.

The Buddha. Image credit.

Learn more about mindfulness from Dr. David Victorson, a mindfulness researcher, with this new LIFE Apps Mindfulness FAQ.