The Cognitive Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation

In this talk (February 28, 2008 at Google Tech Talks) Philippe Goldin of the Clinically Applied Affective Neuroscience group in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University explores the mechanisms and brains systems of mindfulness and attention. view full video

In this talk (February 28, 2008 at Google Tech Talks) Philippe Goldin of the Clinically Applied Affective Neuroscience group in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University explores the mechanisms and brains systems of mindfulness and attention.

view full video


Mindfulness Defined

Paying attention in a particular way... on purpose.. in the present moment... non-judgmentally.
— Jon Kabat-Zinn

The mechanisms activated when being mindful (and during mindfulness meditation) involve the following:

  1. paying attention in a particular way - "alerting", "re-ortienting" and "executive control" 
  2. on purpose - "intention" and "motivation"
  3. in the present moment - "not avoiding now", "not pushing any experience away"
  4. non-judgmentally - "curiosity" and "openness"

Important to note is that mindfulness is not a process of distraction, suppression, avoidance, rumination or even cognitive re-appraisal.

Over the past 30 years, studies involving Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) have demonstrated that by training mindfulness formal (sitting meditation) and informal (meaningful pauses), significant reductions in both physical and emotional pain are experienced.

Emotion Regulation Strategies

Some of the volitional (on demand) emotion regulation strategies used in the MBSR research:

  1. Attentional focusing (focus on breath, visualization, mantra, etc.)
  2. Attentional distraction (perform task which requires specific attention like counting backwards)
  3. Cognitive reappraisal (cognitively reframing understanding of a negative experience)

Research showed that MBSR practitioners had the ability to down-regulate their emotions when triggered.

Types of Attention

  1. Alerting - maintaining sustained vigilance on an object)
  2. Re-orienting - ability to switch focus from one object to another)
  3. Executive control - volitional/conscious selection of what to focus on)

Mindfulness meditation has been shown to improve all three forms of attention.

Meditation and the Forms of "Self"

The two categories/forms of self are:

  1. Analytic/Narrative/Remembering self - a conceptual/fixed sense of self stemming primarily from a  past (remembering) and future (ruminating/planning) orientation.
  2. Experiencing self - an "unfixed" sense of self rooted in ever-changing, present moment experiences.  

Meditators report a positive shift from the fixed, conceptual self towards more of an experiencing self.