Mindfulness described as a state, process or trait and its intervention is proven to be effective in working with psychological disorders and general stress reduction. Lack of clarity regarding the mechanisms underlying the process of creating a sustainable healthy mind has been attempted to be explained through neurobiology. This article is an overview of neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness, including recent research, and findings. The topic was widely studied by Cahn and Polich (2006), Baer (2006), and Lazar (2005).
From the neurobiological approach, mechanisms of mindfulness are mainly focused on understanding neural mechanisms that are activated to achieve a meditative state and study the effect on brain structure and function. In other words, mindfulness practice has been related to alterations in various areas of the brain. According to some studies, mindfulness also can influence the production of hormones that alter the mood. Other research suggests that when we are mindful, the connections between different regions of the brain shift. (Esch, 2014)
Taking into consideration that mindfulness practices are associated with state and trait-like effects, the neurobiological approach studies both long-term and in-the-moment mindfulness practices brain transformations. Understanding neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness is useful for its effective utilization in practice and are promising in terms of treating clinical illnesses, as well as promoting a healthy mind and improved well-being.
In neurobiology, when a study investigates the role of the neural system in certain skills or processes, simple and repetitive tasks are used, as these are easier to measure and monitor. It is necessary to highlight brain areas responsible for the task to be able to study it. Mindfulness is a complex process that also may involve rapid shifts of states. For instance, focusing on breath, destruction and recognition of being distracted, and images from the past all might be present during mindfulness meditation and involve different brain areas. Such complexity of the mindfulness process creates difficulties to study it, especially from a neurobiological approach.
A variety of studies conducted to access data regarding neural mechanisms underlying health improvements in mindfulness utilization. Generally, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans are used to investigate how people’s brains change as they practice mindfulness. Evidence shows that repeated mindfulness meditation causes specific regions of the brain to shrink or expand.
Mindfulness meditation affects psychological and neurological processes and systems, improving attentional capacity and bodily awareness while also engaging cognitive control processes. Mindfulness practice is associated with brain consistency changes in certain areas (Treadway & Lazar, 2009):
- the rostrolateral prefrontal cortex;
- insular cortex;
- anterior cingulate cortex;
- sensory cortices;
- superior longitudinal fasciculus;
- mid-cingulate cortex; and
- corpus callosum.
Generally, when speaking of brain changes it means changes in density and/or thickness of the brain tissue; an increased number of neurons or fibres; and changes in cortical surface or white matter fibre density. The benefits of mindfulness may entail various elements of brain functioning on a wide scale, according to the researchers, because this study covered so many distinct brain areas. (Esch, 2014)
Meta-analysis and systemic reviews support that mindfulness found to be effective in improving cognitive and emotional reactivity and decrease repetitive negative thinking. (Gu et al., 2015; Mitchell & Heads, 2015; Van Der Velden & Roepstorff, 2015)
To access information regarding therapeutic change developed by mindfulness practice studies on specific populations are conducted. For instance, a study on patients with anxiety disorders using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) with emotional focus tasks before and after mindfulness intervention utilization showed significant intervention-related clinically relevant changes. The studies report increased activations in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (PFC), anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and ventrolateral PFC, anterior insula which correlated with symptoms reduction. In other words, mindfulness intervention flourished recruitment of brain areas involved in emotional processing and its regulation. (Taren et al., 2014)
In addition, changes in the amygdala were also reported and patients with generalized anxiety disorder after intervention showed decreased activation of its neutral faces (images). The connection between amygdala and other responsible brain areas in task-related function change to positive correlation from negative, which associated with symptoms improvement. (Goldin et al., 2012; King et al., 2016) These findings show that mindfulness interventions may achieve therapeutic effects by altering brain areas states and networks.
To identify the structural change in brain areas voxel-based morphometry (VBM), exploratory analysis is generally used. Structural changes are related to grey matter density and its concentration. A controlled longitudinal study conducted by Hölzel and colleagues (2011) on sixteen healthy, meditation naive participants was conducted to investigate pre-post changes in the grey matter of the brain accommodated to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. The results were studied using VBM and compared to a control group of seventeen people and analyzed data suggested that grey matter increased in concentration along with the hippocampus. In addition, a whole-brain analysis showed that the posterior cingulate cortex, the cerebellum and the temporoparietal junction in the experimental group increased. In other words, brain region concentration, in areas involved in learning, memory, emotion regulation and perspective tasking, along with self-referential processing, increased. (Hölzel, Carmody, et al., 2011)
Another study suggests that emotional reactivity and trait mindfulness are interrelated and both seem to improve with the long-term practice of mindfulness interventions. Not much evidence exists in support of a specific common neural basis of trait mindfulness and emotional regulation. Research by (Baltruschat et al., 2021) aimed to study the relationship between structural networks and trait mindfulness and suggested that brain areas associated with emotional reactivity and semantic processing are generally related to trait mindfulness. The structures which support trait mindfulness of emotional regulation include the default mode network, the visual network, the limbic network and the frontoparietal network, along with the cerebellum and amygdala. In other words, mindfulness is widely spread through the main areas of the cerebral hemispheres of the brain and trait mindfulness may generally be associated with emotional responding and semantic processing.
Short-term mindfulness practice shows positive results in protecting against mood-related disorders and cognitive declines. Evidence shows that short-term intervention of Integrative Body-Mind Training (IBMT) associated with increased ventral posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), induce grey matter plasticity and might be associated with self-awareness, emotion, cognition and ageing processes. (Tang et al., 2020)
Existing evidence regarding modulation of brain structure and neural activity by Body-Mind exercises supports that this is associated with the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, lateral temporal lobe, insula and cingulate cortex. Changes in the mentioned brain areas are associated with health benefits. (Zhang et al., 2021)
To summarize the structural effects of meditation on the brain, it is possible that the thickness of various parts of the cortex increase in individuals who meditate frequently. This may be seen in areas related to attention and memory, as well as interception and sensory processing, self-regulation and auto-regulation.
Functional changes in the brain areas are described by Lutz and colleagues (2004) and stated that long-term mindfulness meditation cultivates compassion and resulted in an increase in high-frequency, synchronized gamma waves in the EEG. Increased attention and functional learning processes produce this pattern, which is linked to higher level awareness and cognitive processes. (Lutz et al., 2004) Gamma activation correlates with quality of mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness meditation was connected to feelings of joy and inner peace and from neurobiological view these feelings associated with hormones such as dopamine. In other words, feelings have a neurobiological basis which might be addressed with mindfulness practice. (Esch, 2014)
Mindfulness assists in breaking unhealthy automatic mental patterns, which might be formed and become a part of response to stress. A person practicing mindfulness might suppress negative thoughts and focus on the present, or focus on the breath. This intentional and active focus on non-threatening present shapes the inner mindset, which biologically can be trained and facilitated. Bishop with colleagues suggested a model explaining this process consisting of two main aspects: (1) self-regulation of attention and (2) active maintenance of the attitude of abiding curiosity. This is also explained by neurobiology when attention regulation activates specific brain areas that correlate with empathic, and compassionate behaviors. When neurobiological changes occur in tandem with recurrent stress challenges, mindfulness-based methods can help people restore their auto-regulative skills that have been lost. (Esch, 2014)
Britta Hölzel and Ulrich Ott suggested several neuronal mechanisms in mindfulness assessment and studies. (Hölzel, Lazar, et al., 2011) From neurobiological view in attention regulation, the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC) are mainly involved. Studies support that memory might be improved with attention improvement through mindfulness practice, due to brain areas responsible being associated with hippocampus. (Mohan et al., 2011)
Emotion Regulation in neurobiology is associated with three levels of limbic system. The first two levels (lower and the middle) are difficult to regulate consciously and are mainly controlled through amygdala. The upper level is described as a bridge between the cortex and limbic system, between reason and cognition, and can be trained. For instance, it might be helpful in breaking the relation between negative emotion and negative cognition linked to it, because it connects the mind and reason. (Creswell et al., 2007)
Body awareness associated with awareness and recognition with a person’s own feelings, improves the “gut feeling”, and represents feelings from the inner body. In addition, body awareness is associated with closer contact with others, because the involved neurobiological modalities are similar.
The last mechanism suggested by Britta Hölzel and Ulrich Ott is self-perception. Mindfulness practice benefits the distinction of self-perception and self-image. For instance, when working with pain, mindfulness distinguish pain: ”you are not the pain”, which is effective in working with stressful thoughts, emotions and stress. From a neurobiological view, sensory and interoceptive areas are involved, as ACC and the insula. This is associated with higher inner control and potentially strengthened self-efficacy. (Vago & David, 2012)
Existing evidence suggests that mindfulness can have a positive impact on health and has proven to be effective for a variety of health impairments. Exploration of the research shows evidence of mindfulness impact on brain structure, functions and networks and demonstrated neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness. From this, it is evident that mindfulness improves and guides change. Importantly, the anatomical and functional changes in the brain that occur as a result of mindfulness practice appear to be long-lasting.
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