How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work?


Have you ever wondered how exactly mindfulness meditation works?  

What mental capabilities are being trained?  

Which parts of the brain are being activated?


In this review paper, the authors present a summary of the underlying mechanisms of mindfulness meditation. 

Definition of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is typically defined as "nonjudgmental attention to experiences in the present moment" [Kabat-Zinn, 1990]. Mindfulness is typically cultivated through practices such as sitting meditation, walking meditation or mindful movements (yoga, Qigong, etc.).  Throughout these practices, the practitioner focuses his/her attention on simply noticing thoughts, emotions and body sensations as they arise and pass away.  The objective of this kind of practice is to simply notice, without being "caught up" or "swept-away", by what is experienced in the present moment. While the instructions are simple, maintaining one's attention on the breath is surprisingly difficult.

There are 4 distinct processes that are being cultivated through mindfulness meditation:

  1. Attention regulation
  2. Body awareness
  3. Emotion regulation
  4. Change in perspective of "self"

Attention Regulation

The typical sitting meditation instruction is for the meditator to focus their attention on the breath; to simply notice the sensation of breathing in and out.  When they notice themselves being distracted from this task ("monkey mind" - planning, memories, other perseverating story lines, etc.), the instructions are to calmly return the attention back to the breath.  This "focus -> distraction -> notice distraction -> re-focus" cycle is the underlying mechanism for attention regulation.  By practicing this cycle over and over, meditators become more skilled at returning their attention to any object of their choosing.  While this skill is practiced "on the cushion" it has far-reaching benefits in every-day life - basically any situation in which focus or concentration is required.

Body Awareness

While trying to maintain attention on the breath, meditators experience distractions through our senses (note: in this context thoughts are considered the sixth sense).  Common sensory experiences include "my legs hurt", "people's voices are distracting", "my nose is suddenly itchy", etc.  In order to bring their attention back to the breath, meditators first notice direct contact with their body.  They begin to notice the quality of their breathing, fluctuations in body temperature, location and type of aches and pains.  By continuously returning their attention to their breath, meditators become more finely attuned to a multitude of subtle bodily sensations.

Emotion Regulation

Emotions by their very nature compel us to take action.  Negative emotions tell us to move away from a situation while positive emotions encourage us to move towards a situation. When we are identified with our emotions we become choiceless - it literally seems that we MUST act on what we're feeling. By simply noticing the arising and passing of emotions, meditators become more skilled at being able to discern what their emotions are telling them and what story-lines they originate from.  By practicing non-reactivity (just noticing emotions without acting on them) they become increasingly liberated from the compulsion to act.  Over time this strengthens their capacity to consciously choose how to respond to emotionally charged situations.  The difference between "reacting" and "responding" is incredibly liberating and empowering.

Change in perspective of "self"

Over time one of the biggest shift meditators experience is an introspective shift.  They literally begin to experience an uncoupling of their perception of themselves and what is actually happening in the present moment. Much of our identity is formed by repeatedly identifying with emotional experiences, thereby creating mental habits and belief patterns.  By meditating and simply non-reactively watching the ongoing stream of mental stories and bodily sensations (they arise and fall away), the meditator begins to experience an empowering dissociation from identity-based beliefs. Through this shift, meditators report a more relaxed and equanimous relationship to present-time experiences.

Conclusion

Evidence suggests that mindfulness practice is associated with neuroplastic changes in regions of the brain that regulate attention (anterior cingulate cortex, insula, temporo-parietal junction, fronto-limbic network). Due to these structural changes in the brain, meditators experience increasing awareness and attunement to their body sensations and thought patterns.  This ability has profoundly positive implications on their intra and inter-personal abilities, and their overall sense of well-being.

Britta K. Hölzel1,2, Sara W. Lazar2,Tim Gard1,2, Zev Schuman-Olivier2, David R.Vago3, and Ulrich Ott1 1 Bender Institute of Neuroimaging, Justus Liebig-University, Giessen, Germany;  2 Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA; and 3Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA download full paper

Britta K. Hölzel1,2, Sara W. Lazar2,Tim Gard1,2, Zev Schuman-Olivier2, David R.Vago3, and Ulrich Ott1

1 Bender Institute of Neuroimaging, Justus Liebig-University, Giessen, Germany;  2 Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA; and 3Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA

download full paper