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What Can Neuroscience Research Tell Us About the Meditative Brain?

July 05, 2012
Emmeline Edwards, Ph.D.
Emmeline Edwards, Ph.D.

This past month my daughter gave me a set of meditation CDs for mother’s day, and I have begun to put them to good use—but I have to admit that it has not been all that easy to quiet my brain and be in “a state of mind cultivated by paying attention on purpose, deeply, and without judgment to whatever arises in the present moment, either inside or outside of us.” Not one to give up easily, I have continued my 20 minutes of meditation practice daily but as a neuroscientist, I would really love to better understand what goes on in my brain during these sessions…

This sentiment seems to be shared widely by the scientific community and the public at large—there has been a growing interest in meditation practices; they are practiced in multiple forms (with and without movement); and they are used for multiple reasons including enhancing the quality of life, reducing psychological stress, and improving health outcomes. Meditation has been practiced since ancient times as a component of religious traditions and beliefs. There are, however, various styles of meditation practices; all include some training of the mind and self-induction of a mode of consciousness to realize some benefit. Walsh and Shapiro refer to meditation as a “family of self-regulation practices that focus on training attention and awareness in order to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control and thereby foster general mental well-being and development and/or specific capacities such as calm, clarity, and concentration” (2006). In the West, meditation is sometimes thought of in two broad categories: concentrative meditation and mindfulness meditation, with concentrative meditation being used interchangeably with focused attention (voluntary focusing of attention on a chosen object) and mindfulness meditation being used interchangeably with open monitoring (non-reactive monitoring of the content of experience from moment to moment).

Neuroscience research has provided a deeper understanding of how our brain works, and we now know that a well-functioning brain is essential for human mental activity and behavior. Different domains of information processing, including cognition, emotion, consciousness, and sense of self can be characterized through activation or inhibition of specific brain structures and circuits. The biologic factors associated with mindfulness meditation may include changes in brain function documented using electrophysiology, single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), positron emission tomography (PET), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Recently, researchers using structural magnetic resonance and diffusion tensor imaging technology have found that people develop measurable physical changes in both gray and white matter of the brain after learning mindfulness meditation.

NCCAM researchers are exploring the associations of major pathways of cognitive processing and emotion regulation by meditative practices. Most of the research on the neuroscience of meditation has been focused on mindfulness meditation because it is reasonably well standardized and allows pre-post study within a manageable timeframe. Results from these studies suggest that meditation acts on areas of the brain involved in self awareness, attention, and emotion; long-term training can result in sustained effects but short-term training may have effects as well in helping individuals cope better with stress, negative affect, and trauma.

However, these are generally small (n) mechanistic studies in healthy subjects, and little is known of individual differences, acceptability, or differences in disease states. While brain imaging methodology continues to evolve, reproducible signals need to be aligned with meaningful behavioral mechanisms in a causal way. Larger clinical studies will have to be conducted to definitively clarify the mechanisms and pathways by which meditative strategies may impact health and identify biological measures of the impact of meditation. We also need to develop and validate better objective outcome measures of meditation practices; indices of expectancy and adherence specific to these practices; and precise criteria (processes and practices) of intervention fidelity for specific practices.

Meanwhile, I continue my daily meditation practices—striving for better concentration, self-control, and good health…


Comments are now closed for this post.

Thank you, Dr. Edwards, for your eloquent articulation of this complex topic. As you point out, it is important for Americans to understand that there are many forms of meditation available, including those with no connection to a particular religious tradition. Given the fast pace endemic in our society, the value of cultivating “a state of mind cultivated by paying attention on purpose, deeply, and without judgment to whatever arises in the present moment, either inside or outside of us” has never been greater. Our growing understanding of the connection between meditative practice and neurophysiological changes and the emerging clinical research that has documented a variety of benefits of meditative practice are beginning to provide the scientific justification necessary to gain broader acceptance of meditation as a valuable tool for reducing suffering and increasing meaningful engagement in our lives.

I totally agree to Dan’s comment on “a state of mind cultivated by paying attention on purpose, deeply, and without judgment to whatever arises in the present moment, either inside or outside of us”. As a matter of fact, this is the core ontology and methodology of the highest level meditation that aims at full enlightenment. I also agree to a religious-neutral approach of meditation research. Scientific study of meditation will eventually help the understanding of religions.

And how is meditation significantly different from relaxation?

Dr. Edward your neuroscientist in you wondered what was going in the brain while meditating. Though very difficult we need to observe without any judgment to delve deep into anything then answer likely to bloom. This is what famous scientists including Einstein noted. I would like yours, as a neuroscientist and others contributions in this field. Meditation is good for anything and everything as the research studies are emerging.

Your last sentence aptly tells us to continue with meditation. Then we will know the effects of meditation needing no validation as a non-researcher.


Relax and go into meditation. Then be relaxed always!

The short term effect of meditation could be similar to relaxation. However, meditation aims to develop the ability for long term “relaxation”, the ability to sustain relaxation in any environment. In order to achieve that, the practitioner has to train himself not to be disturbed by his emotions and then detach his mind from the stream of thoughts. This was phrased above as “without judgment to whatever arises in the present moment, either inside or outside of us”. Here, “judgement” is a manifstation and a result of “attaching” your mind to and then “obssessing” your mind with whatever arises in the environment. (Please note that this is not to say we shouldn’t judge. It is to say that we shouldn’t stick to the judgement actitvity.) Meditation aims at a state of ultimate freedom and enlightenment. Such a state should manifest distinguishing neurophysiological properties. This is logically sound if different emotions can be distinguished by analyzing a set of measurements, as shown in recent studies.

I’m sorry. What you are describing still sounds like plain old relaxation (without the quotes), learning how to relax and how not to worry and perseverate unduly.

How typical of “Integrative Medicine” to simply apply their own metaphysical jargon to a practice that has been prescribed for a very long time in medicine.

Of course, we have to learn relax before anything further.

Meditation is perhaps the oldest and proven way of mind and body relaxation. But it requires patience, consistency, practice and faith. Thanks for sharing the research on this practice. It is indeed quite interesting.

Very interesting. I would love to see a scientific report on the effects of meditation on the brain. I believe the results would prove to be beneficial. This type of information definitely needs to be shared and taught across the world.


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Well, it’s wonderful to have science to back up the claims of meditation. It’s experiential, try it for yourself and discover the results. Its an amazing tool. There is plenty of scientific evidence that it changes and re-maps the brain..feel it for yourself..otherwise, the old adage of, we need more studies will be a perpetual timeline never reached…do it, do it regularly. If it was a pill, it would be a blockbuster. It requires dedication, discipline and patience.

We have a pending NIH proposal for a project on scientific measurement of the effects of meditation and, hopefully, building brain state models for meditation. There are a large amount of work on measuring emotions using various means. Measuring meditation is a more subtle work. We can further discuss this topic if interested.

Extensive research and writing has been done by James H. Austin, MD on this subject, see Zen and the Brain and other publications (844 pages!)

Re: Isnt meditation the same as relaxation?Mindful meditation is a practice that requires one to focus on the present through non-reactive attention to stimuli.   Relaxation is a perceived state of being at ease with oneself and as such can be arrived at in a multitude of ways.   To think of them as synonymous is erroneous - meditation is a specific practice and relaxation is a state of mind.

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