How does mindfulness affect the brain? [video]

Dr Meera Joshi
Mindfulness expert for Bupa UK
10 November 2017

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This article is more than three years old. It reflects the best available evidence at the time of publication.

Chances are you’ve heard about mindfulness. It seems as though nearly everyone, from schoolchildren to corporate giants like Google, has been embracing the practice in recent years.

Mindfulness is a kind of mental exercise for your brain. Based on meditation, it helps you to focus on the present moment. But what actually happens to our brains when we practise mindfulness regularly?

What’s happening in my brain when I'm mindful?

Exactly how the brain works is still something of a mystery to scientists. We understand there are areas of the brain that are responsible for specific functions. The frontal lobe, for example, is where future planning takes place. We also know there are many connections between these areas. Despite having some knowledge, we’re still piecing together exactly how this produces thoughts and feelings.

Nevertheless, evidence has linked practising mindfulness to changes in many parts of the brain. Some research suggests that mindfulness can affect the production of chemicals that change our mood. Other evidence shows that connections between different regions of the brain change when we are mindful.

An image depicting a Rubik's cube being solved in someone's mind 

A changing brain

Scientists have used MRI scans to see how the brain changes when people practise mindfulness, yielding some fascinating results. Evidence suggests that particular areas of the brain may either shrink or grow in response to regular mindfulness practice. Here are a few examples.

  • Mindfulness and stress. Research shows that after practising mindfulness, the grey matter in your brain’s amygdala – a region known for its role in stress – can become smaller.
  • Mindfulness and creativity. The pre-frontal cortex is the area of your brain responsible for things like planning, problem solving, and controlling your emotions. The grey matter in this area can become thicker after practising mindfulness, showing increased activity in these areas of thought.
  • Mindfulness and memory. An area of the brain known as the hippocampus helps your memory and learning. This area can also become thicker after practising mindfulness.

Pain busting

The examples above only focus on specific areas of the brain. In reality, the different areas of the brain and body come together to act as a whole. They communicate and work together, sometimes in ways we don’t expect. A great example of this is how we experience pain and how mindfulness can change it.

We know there’s a link between how much pain we feel and our memories of pain. When we feel pain, we create a memory of it. The next time we feel the same pain, our memories of the pain can make it feel worse.

One study found that mindfulness experts reported feeling less pain than people who didn’t practise mindfulness. Interestingly, in these people the areas of the brain that are associated with pain didn’t shrink. Instead, the areas of the brain associated with emotion and memory were less active. It seems that mindfulness may have reduced the connectivity between these two areas of the brain. By not drawing on past memories of pain, the experts were able to feel less pain.

This small example shows us just how complicated the brain can be! In fact, the brain works in far more elaborate ways than this. As we increasingly understand how it works, we can understand how mindfulness affects the brain.

The future

As research continues we are realising that there are very real changes happening in the brain due to mindfulness. Some of these are simple and others can be complicated and unexpected. From the evidence we can be sure that mindfulness really is helping us change our minds for the better.

If you’d like to get started with mindfulness, why not try one of our mindfulness meditation podcasts?

If you’re worried about your mental health, our direct access service aims to provide you with the advice, support and treatment you need as quickly as possible. If you’re covered by your health insurance, you’ll be able to get mental health advice and support usually without the need for a GP referral. Learn more today.

Dr Meera Joshi
Dr Meera Joshi
Mindfulness expert for Bupa UK

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