The workings of mindfulness meditation in the dynamic brain

Last update: February 20, 2024
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Reading time: 3 minutes
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By Brain Matters

Mindfulness meditation is a form of meditation that focuses entirely on the here and now. All attention is on breathing in and out calmly. The moment a feeling or thought arises, it is fully accepted and not judged. The tradition of meditation comes from the East, but Western people are beginning to integrate it more and more into their daily lives. And this is not without reason.

Research shows that mindfulness meditation has tremendous benefits. Practicing mindfulness meditation has been proven to increase people's well-being. In addition, it is increasingly being integrated into clinical settings, as treatment programs with mindfulness components actually lead to the relief of clinical symptoms. And the list goes on: research focused on the brain shows that the structure of the brain can change in a positive way.

A new study answers an important connecting question. Indeed, unlike the structure of the brain, one might also ask what mindfulness changes about the dynamics of the active brain. How do the brains of mindfulness meditation practitioners and non-practitioners differ at this level? To answer this, fMRI data was used to look at three relevant brain networks.

Three networks, three functions

Candidate 1: The Default Mode Network (DMN). This network is active at times when you are awake and unfocused on the external world. Think of moments like daydreaming or introspection. Why was this area analyzed? The DMN is relevant to mindfulness meditation, because during meditation we cut ourselves off from the external world. 

Candidate 2 was the Saliency Network (SN). "Saliency" involves things that attract our attention easily. This network was included in the analysis because it is linked to the degree to which we are aware of our thoughts wandering, especially emotionally tinged thoughts. Pretty relevant to meditation right? 

Finally, the Central Executive Network (CEN) was being researched. This network is active when a person is actively trying to focus on the present and when we redirect our attention.

How did the research work?

The procedure was as follows. Some 26 participants with no meditation experience were trained on mindfulness meditation using breathing exercises for two weeks. They were then given a mindfulness questionnaire to determine their mindfulness skills. The researchers expected the above-named brain networks of participants who scored higher on this questionnaire to differ in a distinct way from participants who scored low on the mindfulness questionnaire.

Findings and interpretation

What exactly did the brains of people who are better at mindfulness meditation do differently? The data showed that the three networks of people who are better at mindfulness are less interconnected. In other words, the networks are more separated and less communication takes place. The interpretation of this is tricky, but the researchers dare to put forward some lines of thought. One important of these concerns the lowered connectivity between the Central Executive Network (relevant to directing attention) and the Saliency Network (relevant to emotional thoughts). The weakened connectivity between the two networks perhaps ensures that a mindful person is better able to take control of deviant brooding thoughts while meditating. Either way, finding these kinds of differences is an important step toward fully understanding the forces and mechanisms behind mindfulness meditation. This is important, because whether you ask scientists or practitioners, mindfulness meditation still has much undiscovered potential.

This article was published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Author: Sander van Bree
Translated by: Joyce Burger

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