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. All of the components described above are connected to each other.
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). 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.
- The cortical thickness in the dorsal ACC was also found to be greater in the of gray matter of experienced meditators.
Body awareness refers to focusing on an object/task within the body such as breathing
- Meditators showed a greater cortical thicknesss  and greater gray matterconcentration in the right anterior insula.
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. Since there is no quantitative evidence suggesting that mindfulness meditation impacts body awareness, this component is not well understood.
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.
- Increased activation of the ventrolateral PFC can regulate emotion by decreasing the activity of the amygdala. This was also predicted by a study in which they observed the effect of a person’s mood/attitude during mindfulness on brain activation.
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.