Mindfulness research

We know that people who consistently meditate have a singular ability to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behaviour. Eileen Luders, neuroscientist, UCLA


The brain has been shown to be more malleable than it was previously thought. Neuroscience research indicates that meditation practice over time brings about positive changes in the brain’s structure and function. With repeated practice, you get trait change, not just state change – new defaults are created.

We now know that the brain is the one organ in our body built to change in response to experience and training. Richie Davidson, Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin

Changes in the brain are one way of evidencing the impact of mindfulness, but being mindful is a fully embodied state, which exists as part of a wider environment, and should not be reduced to activity in the brain.

Science is providing evidence of mindfulness’ value

Modern day scientific research and neuroscience is backing up the positive reports that meditators have been giving for many years.

Below are summaries of some key research into this field. Many more studies have been, and are being, conducted, suggesting a variety of benefits of mindfulness.

Happier, less stressed and improved immune function

Richie Davidson and colleagues conducted, now much-cited, research into mindfulness in 2003. Workplace participants undertook an 8 week MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) course. The MBSR workplace participants were tested before and after the course. There was a control group.

After the course they found that there was more activity in the left prefrontal cortex (associated with positive emotions), indicating participants were happier and less stressed. This correlated with self-reports and was sustained 4 months later. Also there was an improvement in immune function in the participants. This was demonstrated by an increase in antibody response to flu vaccine among the meditators and this correlated with the brain activity shift.

Meditation can remodel the brain to strengthen the qualities that psychologists say are crucial components of happiness: resilience, equanimity, calm, and a sense of compassionate connection to others.Richie Davidson

Richie Davidson is the founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin and is a pioneer in affective neuroscience – the study of the neural mechanisms of emotion.

Less reactivity to stress

In their 2010 study, Holzel, Lazar et al scanned the brains of participants of an 8 week MBSR course before and after the course.

There was shrinkage in the amygdala, indicating less reactivity to stress. This was aligned with the group’s subjective experiences. The more stress-reduction people reported the smaller the amygdala became. The control group did not show these brain changes.

Brain changes related to learning and memory, emotion regulation, and perspective-taking

A 2011 study investigated pre-post changes in grey matter concentration attributable to participation in an MBSR programme.

The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in grey matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, and perspective-taking. This included an increase in grey matter in the left hippocampus and temporo-parietal junction

This research was carried out by Holzel, Lazar and colleagues.

Our data suggest that meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being. Sara Lazar, leader of the study and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School

Slowdown in age-related thinning of cortex – associated with cognitive functioning

In a controlled study in 2005, Sara Lazar and colleagues conducted MRIs and compared cortical thickness of experienced local meditation practitioners and non-meditators.

They observed increased grey matter in the prefrontal cortex of the meditators, an area of the brain important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being. Between-group differences in prefrontal cortical thickness were most pronounced in older participants. This suggests that meditation might offset age-related cortical thinning.

Cortical grey matter shrinks in most people as they age. The cortical grey matter, amongst other things, controls processing speed of the brain, memory, ability to learn new skills, and thinking in general.

Protection from various symptoms of aging

Nobel prize winner, Dr Elizabeth Blackburn and colleagues conducted a study in 2015, “Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres.”

They found that some forms of meditation, particularly concentration practices, may preserve the length of telomeres. Telomeres are strips of atoms at end of the chromosomes that protect us from age-related illnesses and symptoms of various kinds. Stress can whittle down telomeres. Meditation can reduce stress arousal and increase positive states of mind and hormonal factors that may promote telomere maintenance.

Mindfulness for reducing depression relapse

‘Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse’ by Zindel, Segal, Williams, Teasdale, was published in 2002. MBCT is a course, created from adapting MBSR and combining it with cognitive behavioural ideas.

Clinical trials showed that MBCT reduces the likelihood of relapse of depression from between 70-80% to between 30-40%. MBCT is at least as good as using anti-depressants for preventing the relapse of depression, but without the side-effects.

Many people who do relapse after attending the MBCT programme, say they recover more quickly and don’t become so deeply depressed.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) approved MBCT in 2004 and it is now available through NHS, where provision is available.

More on mindfulness research…

If you are interested in finding out more about research into mindfulness, check out the following:

Richie Davidson and his work at the Centre for Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin

Center for Mindfulness, University of Massachusetts

Sara Lazar at the Lazar Lab, Harvard University

Mindful Brain Lab, Bangor University

Oxford Mindfulness Centre, University of Oxford

Mindfulness research programme at Exeter University

Mindfulness Research Monthly – the scientific bulletin of the American Mindfulness Research Association (AMRA)

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