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The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation

An Erratum to this article was published on 10 April 2015

Key Points

  • It is proposed that the mechanism through which mindfulness meditation exerts its effects is a process of enhanced self-regulation, including attention control, emotion regulation and self-awareness.

  • Research on mindfulness meditation faces a number of important challenges in study design that limit the interpretation of existing studies.

  • A number of changes in brain structure have been related to mindfulness meditation.

  • Mindfulness practice enhances attention. The anterior cingulate cortex is the region associated with attention in which changes in activity and/or structure in response to mindfulness meditation are most consistently reported.

  • Mindfulness practice improves emotion regulation and reduces stress. Fronto-limbic networks involved in these processes show various patterns of engagement by mindfulness meditation.

  • Meditation practice has the potential to affect self-referential processing and improve present-moment awareness. The default mode networks — including the midline prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex, which support self-awareness — could be altered following mindfulness training.

  • Mindfulness meditation has potential for the treatment of clinical disorders and might facilitate the cultivation of a healthy mind and increased well-being.

  • Future research into mindfulness meditation should use randomized and actively controlled longitudinal studies with large sample sizes to validate previous findings.

  • The effects of mindfulness practice on neural structure and function need to be linked to behavioural performance, such as cognitive, affective and social functioning, in future research.

  • The complex mental state of mindfulness is likely to be supported by the large-scale brain networks; future work should take this into account rather than being restricted to activations in single brain areas.

Abstract

Research over the past two decades broadly supports the claim that mindfulness meditation — practiced widely for the reduction of stress and promotion of health — exerts beneficial effects on physical and mental health, and cognitive performance. Recent neuroimaging studies have begun to uncover the brain areas and networks that mediate these positive effects. However, the underlying neural mechanisms remain unclear, and it is apparent that more methodologically rigorous studies are required if we are to gain a full understanding of the neuronal and molecular bases of the changes in the brain that accompany mindfulness meditation.

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Figure 1: Brain regions involved in the components of mindfulness meditation.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the US Office of Naval Research. We thank E. Luders for her contributions to an earlier version of this manuscript. We benefited from discussions with R. Davidson and A. Chiesa. We thank four anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments and R. Tang for manuscript preparation.

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Glossary

Longitudinal studies

Study designs that compare data from one or more groups at several time points and that ideally include a (preferably active) control condition and random assignment to conditions.

Cross-sectional studies

Study designs that compare data from an experimental group with those from a control group at one point in time.

Correlational studies

Studies that assess the co-variation between two variables: for example, co-variation of functional or structural properties of the brain and a behavioural variable, such as reported stress.

Blood-oxygen-level-dependent contrasts

(BOLD contrasts). Signals that can be extracted with functional MRI and that reflect the change in the amount of deoxyhaemoglobin that is induced by changes in the activity of neurons and their synapses in a region of the brain. The signals thus reflect the activity in a local brain region.

Arterial spin labelling

(ASL). An MRI technique that is capable of measuring cerebral blood flow in vivo. It provides cerebral perfusion maps without requiring the administration of a contrast agent or the use of ionizing radiation because it uses magnetically labelled endogenous blood water as a freely diffusible tracer.

Brain state

The reliable patterns of brain activity that involve the activation and/or connectivity of multiple large-scale brain networks.

Fractional anisotropy

A parameter in diffusion tensor imaging, which images brain structures by measuring the diffusion properties of water molecules. It provides information about the microstructural integrity of white matter.

Axial and radial diffusivity

Derived from the eigenvalues of the diffusion tensor, their underlying biophysical properties are associated with axonal density and myelination, respectively.

Activation likelihood estimation meta-analysis

A technique for coordinate-based meta-analysis of neuroimaging data. It determines the convergence of foci reported from different experiments, weighted by the number of participants in each study.

Multivariate pattern analysis

A method of analysing functional MRI data that is capable of detecting and characterizing information represented in patterns of activity distributed within and across multiple regions of the brain. Unlike univariate approaches, which only identify magnitudes of activity in localized parts of the brain, this approach can monitor multiple areas at once.

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Tang, YY., Hölzel, B. & Posner, M. The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nat Rev Neurosci 16, 213–225 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3916

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