Neural mechanisms of mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness is simply paying attention to thoughts, emotions, and body sensations in a non-judgmental manner.Meditation is a platform used to achieve mindfulness. This practice originated from the idea of mindfulness in Buddhism and has been widely promoted by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Components of mindfulness meditation

Although several components for mindfulness meditation have been proposed, four components have found to be common among most: attention regulation, body awareness, emotion regulation, and change in perspective on the self.[1] All of the components described above are connected to each other.

Attention regulation

Attention regulation is the task of focusing attention on an object, acknowledging any distractions, and then returning your focus back to the object. Some evidence for mechanisms responsible for attention regulation during mindfulness meditation are shown below.

  • Mindfulness meditators showed greater activation of rostral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC).[2] This suggests that meditators have a stronger processing of conflict/distraction and are more engaged in emotional regulation. However as the meditators become more efficient at focused attention, regulation becomes unnecessary and consequentially decreases activation of ACC in the long term.[3]

  • The cortical thickness in the dorsal ACC was also found to be greater in the of gray matter of experienced meditators.[4]

Body awareness

Body awareness refers to focusing on an object/task within the body such as breathing

  • Meditators showed a greater cortical thicknesss [8] and greater gray matterconcentration in the right anterior insula.[9]



The insula is responsible for awareness to stimuli and the thickness of its gray matter correlates to the accuracy and detection of the stimuli by the nervous system.[11][12] Since there is no quantitative evidence suggesting that mindfulness meditation impacts body awareness, this component is not well understood.

Emotion regulation

Cognitive regulation (in terms of mindfulness meditation) means having control over giving attention to a particular stimuli or by changing the response to that stimuli.The cognitive change is achieved through reappraisal (interpreting the stimulus in a more positive manner) and extinction (reversing the response to the stimulus). Behavioral regulationrefers to inhibiting the expression of certain behaviors in response to a stimuli. Research suggests two main mechanisms for how mindfulness meditationinfluences the emotional response to a stimuli.

  • Mindfulness meditation regulates emotions via increased activation of the dorso-medial PFC and rostral ACC.[2]
  • Increased activation of the ventrolateral PFC can regulate emotion by decreasing the activity of the amygdala.[13][14][15] This was also predicted by a study in which they observed the effect of a person’s mood/attitude during mindfulness on brain activation.[16]

Lateral prefrontal cortex (lPFC) is important for selective attention while ventral prefrontal cortex (vPFC) is involved in inhibiting a response. As noted before, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) has been noted for maintaining attention to a stimulus. The amygdala is responsible for generating emotions. Mindfulness meditation is believed to be able to regulate negative thoughts and decrease emotional reactivity through these regions of the brain.


Changing your Mind, Emotions (and brain) via Mindfulness

Apart for the 12 step program of recovery, the other reasons for me still being alive today are my wife and mindfulness meditation.

All the periods I have struggled in my recovery have coincided with me not meditating properly.

I spent a number of years learning and practicing Vispassana meditation, learning the techniques in a fairly expert way at various 10 day retreats.
Vispassana is also referred to as insight meditation  and forms the basis of the western version of Mindfulness meditation developed by people like Jon Kabat Zin.
What meditation does to the brain has just started to be be fully explored in the last couple of decades.
I can only speak form my own experience. When I meditate I regulate my emotions than when I do not. My emotions seem more modulated, their intensity is manageable and they are much shorter in duration. My stress and distress levels are also greatly reduced and I have better facility for living in the moment, the now.
In the next few blogs I will be further exploring the use of meditation in the treatment of addictive behaviours.

I would urge every one in recovery to at least explore a meditation class to see if it can benefit their recovery too.

Life is much easier when I meditate, less so when I don’t.
The video below is an introduction to the work of  Jon Kabat Zin and The Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine who have been  a visionary force and global leader in mind-body medicine for thirty years and more, pioneering the integration of mindfulness meditation and other approaches based on mindfulness in traditional medicine and health through patient care, academic medical research and vocational training, and in society in general through various outreach initiatives and public service.