The Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation

Calm your cingulate!  You have likely heard about mindfulness, but you likely haven’t heard about what it’s doing for your brain. Ty the Neuro Guy shares his insight into why mindfulness meditation can be good for you and your brain.

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As you begin to read this, I want you to take a moment and notice the way the air enters and passes through your lungs. How at the end of an inhalation it pauses for a moment until your lungs start to contract and push the air out. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow your breath is; You do you. Take 2 more breaths before moving on to the next paragraph.

Congratulations, you just spend 14 seconds doing some Mindfulness Meditation! Wasn’t that easy?!

While it might not seem like it, what you just did has a lot of therapeutic potential for a wide array of medical and mental health conditions. But how you might ask? All you did was breath and you do that literally every moment of your life, right? Well, the secret is in the way you breathed. Scientifically speaking, Mindfulness is a set of mental exercises that are designed to bring your awareness to your body in the present moment in a non-judgmental way1. Curiously, when you do that, you're engaging a part of your brain, called the Cingulate, and like a muscle, you’re making it stronger2. The Cingulate is involved in many critical aspects of your life3, from motivation (actually starting your To-Do list), sustained attention (actually finishing your To-Do list), selective attention (not getting distracted by your phone halfway through your To-Do list), and being more aware of what you are actually doing (not actually doing tomorrow’s To-Do list by mistake). So when you practice mindfulness, you’re actually strengthening your Cingulate’s ability to do all of these things. Who knew the act of focusing on your breath could be so cool? (Answer: Buddhist monks! They have known focused breath was cool for hundreds of years, which was the inspiration for the current secular practice of mindfulness5)

It just so happens that many mental health and neurological problems are associated with problems with your Cingulate. People with Depression and Multiple Sclerosis (MS) both have brain abnormalities resulting in impaired motivation or fatigue6-7, people with ADHD struggle with selective and sustained attention8, and anxiety is thought of as inappropriately focusing on negative future events9. The regular practice of mindfulness has been found to improve all of these conditions, in one way or another10-14.

Perhaps one of the coolest parts of mindfulness is that you don’t actually have to be good at it to get benefits from it. The act of trying is often enough. Trust me, I can barely do more than a couple minutes of mindfulness before I catch my mind wandering off. But all your Cingulate cares about is that you’re honestly trying, and with time it will develop enough that my 2 minutes of focused attention turns to 10. And that 10 minutes doesn’t have to be sitting cross-legged in a praying position with burning incense (its secular, remember?). You can practice mindfulness almost anywhere, like on your morning commute (maybe not if you're driving though!), or the walk down the street to get coffee, or that awkward 10 minutes before your appointment. Mindfulness works best when its something your brain does naturally, so sneaking in a few minutes here and there can help train your brain to do that.

While I could go on about mindfulness for hours, research suggests the typical person’s sustained attention is starting to wane after reading this much of an article (unless you have a well-developed Cingulate). If I wet your curiosity, there are plenty of self-help books, online resources, and phone apps to help you become more mindful. I have a few of my favorites listed below, and perhaps you might have a larger attention span for my next article.

Ty the Neuro Guy is a cognitive neuroscience graduate student at the University of Utah and the Research Director for Branch Out Neurological Foundation. Inspired by the creative knowledge translation, Ty helps promote scientific literacy through this blog. You can look forward to an article each month helping explain the science of NeuroCAM. If you have any questions or comments about this article or overall blog, feel free to email Ty McKinney at research@branchoutfoundation.com.

 

Resources

This is a list of 20 tips for making mindfulness a part of your day-to-day life and not just an evening ritual.

https://zenhabits.net/meditation-guide/

Downloadable guided meditations that are short and great for beginners. There are a few different exercises that you can mix and match depending on your goals and how long you want to meditate.

http://mindfulwaythroughanxiety.com/exercises/

There is a longer guided meditation from a fellow neuroscientist Sam Harris. While the previous links focus on discrete skills and exercises, this one goes deeper and a bit more philosophical. I recommend trying these after you have some of the more basic skills down.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzMhLmErz5Q (10 min)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OboD7JrT0NE&t=5s (30 min)

 

References

  1. Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience16(4), 213.
  2. Teper, R., & Inzlicht, M. (2012). Meditation, mindfulness and executive control: the importance of emotional acceptance and brain-based performance monitoring. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience8(1), 85-92.
  3. Bush, G., Luu, P., & Posner, M. I. (2000). Cognitive and emotional influences in anterior cingulate cortex. Trends in cognitive sciences4(6), 215-222.
  4. Hölzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago, D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on psychological science6(6), 537-559.
  5. Kang, C., & Whittingham, K. (2010). Mindfulness: A dialogue between Buddhism and clinical psychology. Mindfulness1(3), 161-173.
  6. Treadway, M. T., & Zald, D. H. (2011). Reconsidering anhedonia in depression: lessons from translational neuroscience. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews35(3), 537-555.
  7. Comi, G., Leocani, L., Rossi, P., & Colombo, B. (2001). Physiopathology and treatment of fatigue in multiple sclerosis. Journal of Neurology248(3), 174-179.
  8. Willcutt, E. G., Doyle, A. E., Nigg, J. T., Faraone, S. V., & Pennington, B. F. (2005). Validity of the executive function theory of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: a meta-analytic review. Biological psychiatry57(11), 1336-1346.
  9. Eysenck, M., Payne, S., & Santos, R. (2006). Anxiety and depression: Past, present, and future events. Cognition & Emotion20(2), 274-294.
  10. Vøllestad, J., Nielsen, M. B., & Nielsen, G. H. (2012). Mindfulnessand acceptancebased interventions for anxiety disorders: A systematic review and metaanalysis. British Journal of Clinical Psychology51(3), 239-260.
  11. Piet, J., & Hougaard, E. (2011). The effect of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for prevention of relapse in recurrent major depressive disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical psychology review31(6), 1032-1040.
  12. Khoury, B., Lecomte, T., Fortin, G., Masse, M., Therien, P., Bouchard, V., ... & Hofmann, S. G. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: a comprehensive meta-analysis. Clinical psychology review33(6), 763-771.

Simpson, R., Booth, J., Lawrence, M., Byrne, S., Mair, F., & Mercer, S. (2014). Mindfulness based interventions in multiple sclerosis-a systematic review. BMC neurology14(1), 15.