Apollo Medicine

: 2017  |  Volume : 14  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 198--201

Neurological benefits of mindfulness meditation

Pushpendra Nath Renjen, Dinesh Mohan Chaudhari 
 Department of Neurology, Institute of Neurosciences, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi, India

Correspondence Address:
Pushpendra Nath Renjen
C-85, Anand Niketan, New Delhi - 110 021


Meditation can be defined as a form of mental training that aims to improve an individual's core psychological capacities, such as attentional and emotional self-regulation. Research on the biological concomitants of meditation practice is sparse and has mostly focused on changes that occur during meditation compared with a resting control condition in a single experimental session. Over 2000 scientific publications on the term “meditation” have been published till date, mainly in the scientific fields such of psychology and neuroscience. If supported by rigorous research studies, the practice of mindfulness meditation might be promising for the treatment of clinical disorders and might facilitate the cultivation of a healthy mind and increased well-being.

How to cite this article:
Renjen PN, Chaudhari DM. Neurological benefits of mindfulness meditation.Apollo Med 2017;14:198-201

How to cite this URL:
Renjen PN, Chaudhari DM. Neurological benefits of mindfulness meditation. Apollo Med [serial online] 2017 [cited 2021 May 18 ];14:198-201
Available from: https://www.apollomedicine.org/text.asp?2017/14/4/198/224728

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Meditation can be defined as a form of mental training that aims to improve an individual's core psychological capacities, such as attentional and emotional self-regulation. Meditation encompasses a family of complex practices that include mindfulness meditation, mantra meditation, yoga, tai chi, and chi gong.[1] With the widespread and growing use of meditative practices in hospitals and academic medical centers for outpatients presenting with a range of chronic stress and pain-related disorders and chronic diseases, under the umbrella of what has come to be called mind/body or integrative medicine, the question of possible biological mechanisms by which meditation may affect somatic, cognitive, and affective processes becomes increasingly important. Research on the biological concomitants of meditation practice is sparse and has mostly focused on changes that occur during meditation compared with a resting control condition in a single experimental session.[2],[3],[4]

 Neurological Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation

Neuropsychiatric disorders such as depression, alcohol, and drug abuse are on the increase worldwide. Neuropsychiatric disorders account for 31% of total disability and are expected to rise by 2020.[5] Depression is the most common of all mental disorders with the greatest public health burden. According to estimates from the World Health Organization by 2020 depression will be the leading cause for disability worldwide. Suicide is estimated to be the leading cause of death in young people in 2020.[5] There have been increases in the number of diagnoses of mental health problems including schizophrenia, dementia, alcohol and substance abuse, and most child psychiatric disorders, which in part may be confounded by better detection, improved services, and diagnostic changes. Nevertheless, these will be an increasing part of the overall health burden in the future.[6] Meditation is essentially a physiological state of demonstrated reduced metabolic activity, different from sleep, that elicits physical and mental relaxation and is reported to enhance psychological balance and emotional stability.[7]

According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the oldest recorded scriptures on Meditation, “Yoga is the suppression of the modifications of the mind.”[8] Although today a large variety of meditation practices have emerged, some of them not aiming to achieve anything beyond relaxation, the original goal of meditation is the elimination or reduction of thought processes, the cessation or slowing of the internal dialogue of the mind, the “mental clutter.” This elimination of the thinking process has been reported to lead to a deep sense of physical and mental calm while at the same time enhancing pure awareness, untainted by thoughts, and perceptual clarity. Meditative experiences of thoughtless awareness furthermore seem to trigger feelings of positive emotions which can range from detached serenity to ecstatic bliss. A common experience of meditation is a meta-cognitive shift where thoughts and feelings rather than occupying full attention can be observed from a detached witnessing awareness from which they can be dealt with in a more efficient manner. Achieving this mystical peak experience of complete thoughtless awareness is the ultimate goal of many traditional meditation techniques. However, most meditation techniques have more commonly focused on achieving trait effects in the practitioners such as enhanced concentration which is a prerequisite to achieve the peak experience.[6] Many electrophysiological studies have examined the brain activation during a variety of concentrative meditation techniques. A common finding has been that of increased low-frequency activation of theta and alpha bands that has been suggested to reflect enhanced sustained attention to internal events.[9]

Most modern functional imaging studies have typically been conducted in very small subject numbers and without the use of control conditions. Nevertheless, the findings so far seem to support the evidence that meditation leads to increased activation in frontal and subcortical brain regions that are important for sustained attention and emotion regulation.[6] A study of Lou et al. using positron emission tomography, reported an increase in the left prefrontal and limbic brain regions during the abstract sense of joy compared to rest in nine practitioners of Yoga Nidra Meditation.[2] This is in line with the electroencephalography findings of Aftanas and Golocheikine and supports the hypothesis of a role of the left fronto-limbic networks for the experience of happiness in meditators.[10] Functional magnetic resonance imaging was conducted in a small number of five meditators with at least 4 years of Kundalini Yoga experience, consisting of body postures, breathing exercises, and concentration techniques. The study design contrasted meditation that consisted in passive observation of the breath and the silent repetition of a mantra at exhalation and inhalation with a control condition where subjects silently generated a random list of animals and did not observe their breathing. There was increased activation during late versus early meditation in dorsolateral prefrontal and parietal cortex, limbic and paralimbic regions (amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampus, and anterior cingulate), and the basal ganglia. The authors interpret their findings as an indication of increased activation of brain regions that mediate sustained attention and autonomic control. Given the very small subject numbers, replication in larger samples will be necessary to corroborate the findings.[11] There is converging evidence that frontoparietal and fronto-limbic brain networks seem to be activated in the attention practices that lead to meditation, presumably reflecting processes of internalized sustained attention and emotion regulation. Hereby, the most consistent findings across meditation imaging studies are the functional upregulation of brain regions that are known to mediate attention control.[6] Various brain regions involved in the components of mindfulness meditation have been extensively studied [Figure 1].[12]{Figure 1}

Meditation has been the subject of scientific research since the 1950s although widespread scientific interest was only reached in the 1990s [Figure 2].[13] Today, over 2000 scientific publications on the term “meditation” have been published, mainly in the scientific fields such of psychology and neuroscience.[13]{Figure 2}

Lazar et al., studied twenty participants with extensive training in Insight meditation were recruited from local meditation communities. These participants were not monks, but rather typical Western meditation practitioners who incorporate their practice into a daily routine involving career, family, friends, and outside interests. Two participants were full-time meditation teachers, three were part-time yoga or meditation teachers and the rest meditated an average of once a day for 40 min, while pursuing traditional careers in fields such as healthcare and law. On average, participants had 9.1 ± 7.1 years of meditation experience and practiced 6.2 ± 4.0 h/week. Study results suggest that meditation may be associated with structural changes in areas of the brain that are important for sensory, cognitive, and emotional processing [Figure 3].[14] The data further suggest that meditation may impact age-related declines in cortical structure.[14]{Figure 3}

In 2008, Hölzel et al., investigated MRI brain images of 20 mindfulness (Vipassana) meditators (mean practice 8.6 years; 2 h daily) using voxel-based morphometry and compared the regional gray matter concentration (GMC) to that of nonmeditators matched for sex, age, education, and handedness. The present study showed a distinct pattern of GMC in meditators, who spent a significant part of their lifetime training nonjudgmental acceptance toward internal experiences that arise at each moment. Regular meditation practice is associated with structural differences in regions that are typically activated during meditation, such as the inferior temporal gyrus and hippocampus as well as in regions that are relevant for the task of meditation, such as the insula and orbitofrontal cortex.[15]

Later on Hölzel et al., went on to study mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), one of the most widely used mindfulness training programs, that has been reported to produce positive effects on psychological well-being and to ameliorate symptoms of a number of disorders. They conducted a controlled longitudinal study to investigate pre-post changes in brain GMC attributable to participation in an MBSR program. Anatomical MRI images from sixteen healthy, meditation-naïve participants were obtained before and after they underwent the 8-week program. Changes in GMC were investigated using voxel-based morphometry, and compared to a wait-list control group of 17 individuals. Analyses in a priori regions of interest confirmed increases in GMC within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporoparietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR group compared to the controls. The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in GMC in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking [Figure 4].[16]{Figure 4}


Increasing awareness and curiosity for various scientifically proven health benefits of mindfulness meditation has been the major key factor for research on meditation. As mentioned earlier, over 2000 scientific publications on the term “meditation” have been published till date, mainly in the scientific fields such of psychology and neuroscience.[13] Knowledge of the mechanisms that underlie the effects of meditation is still in its infancy. However, there is emerging evidence that mindfulness meditation might cause neuroplastic changes in the structure and function of brain regions involved in regulation of attention, emotion and self-awareness. Further research needs to use longitudinal, randomized, and actively controlled research designs and larger sample sizes to advance the understanding of the mechanisms of mindfulness meditation in regard to the interactions of complex brain networks and needs to connect neuroscientific findings with behavioral data. If supported by rigorous research studies, the practice of mindfulness meditation might be promising for the treatment of clinical disorders and might facilitate the cultivation of a healthy mind and increased well-being.[12]

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Conflicts of interest

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