How does mindfulness affect the brain?

Caroline Harper
Clinical Lead for Mental Health, Bupa UK
14 October 2021
Next review due October 2024

The popularity of mindfulness has soared in recent years. Simply put, it’s a kind of mental exercise that helps you to focus on the present moment, using techniques like meditation, yoga and breathing exercises.

But, do you know what happens to your brain when you practise mindfulness regularly? Here, I explain.

a woman standing outdoors with arms stretched

What happens in my brain when I’m practising mindfulness?

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. But, there are still gaps in our knowledge on exactly how this produces thoughts and feelings.

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. We also know that connections between different regions of the brain change when we are mindful.

How can mindfulness change the brain and improve your health?

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

  • Mindfulness and stress. After practising mindfulness, the grey matter in your brain’s amygdala – a region known for its role in stress – can become smaller. Studies have also shown similar brain changes in people who meditate.
  • 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.

Does mindfulness help you to feel less pain?

The examples above only focus on specific areas of the brain. But in reality the different areas of the brain and body communicate and work together. And they sometimes do this in ways we don’t expect. A great example of this is how we experience pain and how mindfulness can change it.

For example, a few studies have found that mindfulness experts reported feeling less pain than people who didn’t practise mindfulness. In these people, the areas of the brain that are associated with pain didn’t shrink. Instead, the areas of the brain linked to emotion and memory were less active. This shows 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.

These studies help us to see just how complicated the brain can be! In fact, the brain works in far more elaborate ways than this.

Ways to be more mindful

Further research will help us to better understand the very real changes happening in the brain due to mindfulness. Some of these changes are simple and others can be complicated and unexpected. But, the evidence so far shows that mindfulness really is helping us change our minds for the better.

If you’d like to get started with mindfulness why not try Bupa’s mindful walking meditation? Calming breathing exercises and yoga can also help with practising mindfulness.

Or have a go at one month of mindfulness, by thinking about different ways you can build mindfulness into your daily routine.

Our health insurance allows you to skip a GP referral in some cases, and speak to a mental health practitioner. Learn more today.

Caroline Harper
Caroline Harper
Clinical Lead for Mental Health, Bupa UK

    • Brain basics: know your brain. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke., last reviewed September 2021
    • Brenner S, Sejnowski TJ. Understanding the human brain. Science 2011; 334(6056):567 doi:10.11/science.1215674
    • Young SN. Biologic effects of mindfulness meditation: Growing insights into neurobiologic aspects of the prevention of depression. J Psychiatry Neurosci 2011; 36(2):75–7. doi: 10.1503/jpn.110010
    • Hölzel BK et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 2011; 191(1):36–43
    • Afonso RF, Kraft I, Aratanha MA, et al. Neural correlates of meditation: a review of structural and functional MRI studies. Frontiers in Bioscience (Scholars Edition) 2020; 12:92–115. doi: 10.2741/S542
    • Tang YY, Lu Q, Fan M et al. Mechanisms of white matter changes induced by meditation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2012; 109(26):10570-4. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1207817109
    • Fadel Zeidan et al. Neural mechanisms supporting the relationship between dispositional mindfulness and pain. Pain 2018; 159(12):2477–85. doi: 10.1097/j.pain.0000000000001344
    • Physical health. Oxford Mindfulness Centre., accessed 7 October 2021
    • What is mindfulness? Oxford Mindfulness Centre., accessed 7 October 2021

About our health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. This is because we believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and wellbeing.

Our information has been awarded the PIF TICK for trustworthy health information. It also follows the principles of the The Information Standard.

The Patient Information Forum tick

Learn more about our editorial team and principles >

Did you find our advice helpful?

We’d love to hear what you think. Our short survey takes just a few minutes to complete and helps us to keep improving our healthy lifestyle articles.

Content is loading