How Does Mindfulness Change the Brain? A neurobiologist’s perspective on mindfulness meditation

MPFI Research Group Leader Mclean Bolton shares the science behind mindfulness and how the practice can alter brain function during times of stress. This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of “The Voice” published by the Palm Beach Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The author, Dr. Mclean Bolton serves on the board of directors for NAMI PBC. You can learn more about NAMI PBC by visiting their website at 

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May 20, 2020
Mindfulness
Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

Mindfulness has become an increasingly popular part of our repertoire for enhancing brain health. There are school mindful meditation programs for children to reduce the stress of exams. Many health providers offer adjunctive mindful-based therapies for those suffering with pain associated with chronic diseases, such as autoimmune disorders and cancer. But the benefits of mindfulness-based therapies have been felt the most by those who live with mental illness.

To have control over the focus of your mind’s eye such that you are healing yourself by changing the activity patterns of your brain circuits is about as empowering as it gets! But what is mindfulness? or mindful meditation? or mindfulness-based intervention? Mindfulness is based on the Tibetan Zen Buddhist practice of meditation. It was adapted for modern psychology and integrated into therapy by Thich Nhat Hanh, Herbert Benson, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Richard Davidson. Mindfulness is focusing your attention on experiencing the present without judgment from the past or worries about the future. It is training the brain to focus on sensory perception and motor behaviors as you experience them. You learn to attend to sensations from the world around you and from within you. Focusing on breathing and body sensations like muscle tension and posture facilitates entering a mental state removed from internally generated emotionally charged repetitive thoughts. In this state, stream of consciousness thoughts can pass without emotional attachment and burden. Inner thoughts can be observed at a distance with self-awareness and detached perspective.

So, what do we think is happening in the brain during mindful meditation? Mindful meditation changes the balance of brain activity between the higher order cortical regions responsible for attention and strengthens executive control over the activation of these attentional networks. There are four attentional networks: The Default Mode Network (DMN), Attention Network (AN) and the Salience Network (SN). In addition, the Frontoparietal Control Network (FPCN) guides how brain activity is balanced between these networks and other brain tasks.

The Default Mode Network is active when you are just sitting around thinking, such as: When you are thinking about yourself and things that happened to you in the past and how you felt about them. Or when you are imagining the future. Or when you thinking about others and trying to put yourself in their shoes. When the DMN is active, it can spin around in loops ruminating about something and bringing up emotions associated with your thoughts. In many mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD and schizophrenia spectrum disorders, the DMN is overactive or it is not well controlled by the FPCN. Runaway thoughts from within can prevent you from processing information from the world around you and reduce your ability to focus on achieving your goals.

The Attention Network is active when you choose to pay attention to stimuli from the outside world. There are two subnetworks to the attention network: the Dorsal Attention Network (DAN) and the Ventral Attention Network (VAN). The DAN is active when you are listening to a friend, or appreciating a walk on the beach or enjoying a nice meal. Activation of this network is under voluntary control; you choose which things in your environment you pay attention to. The Attention Network is active when you shift focus to pay attention to something unexpected that happens around you. This shift to the VAN happens without you consciously thinking about it. The Salience Network is active when you are determining what things in your environment are important for your well being. It is important for evaluating threatening situations and in determining what behaviors will have the most rewarding outcome.

During mindful meditation, the DAN is engaged to keep your attention focused on external stimuli. When you concentrate on breathing and bodily sensations during meditation, the SN is engaged to evaluate these sensations. The FPCN works with the DAN to keep you focused on sensory experiences and motor behaviors and to monitor when your attention drifts off to internal thoughts and starts to activate the DMN. To return your thoughts to the present experience, the SN nudges the FPCN to shift brain activity to the DAN and away from the DMN. In short, the FPCN, DAN and SN work together to keep you present in the moment and not lost in the DMN with perseverative worries.

There is evidence from FMRI, EEG, MRI and DTI studies that long-term practitioners of mindful meditation have changes in the activity and structure of attentional network. There is decreased connectivity and activity within the DMN in meditators compared to those not trained in mindful meditation. There is increased cross-talk between FPCN and DMN, reflecting greater executive control over the DMN. Studies also show increased connectivity within the SN and increased interconnectivity between FPCN, SN and DAN helping to keep the mind on rewarding topics. There is also increased interconnectivity between FPCN, DAN, and VAN to keep the focus on the present Mindfulness training can help change patterns of brain activity because the synapses within these attentional networks can strengthen or weaken with use. So, join a mindful meditation class or download a mindful meditation app and train your brain to get out of the default mode network and be present!

For more information see “A neurobehavioral account for decentering as the salve for the distressed mind“, by Anthony King and David Fresco in Current Opinions in Psychology (2019) v. 28 pp 285-293, which is the reference for this article).

Featured Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash