Meditation and the Brain

Meditation can be defined as “a family of mental training practices aimed at monitoring and regulating attention, perception, emotion and physiology” (Fox and Cahn, 2019). As with other forms of learning, meditation has the potential to change the brain (neuroplasticity). Fox and Cahn (2019) reviewed decades of meditation research in a paper entitled “Meditation and the brain in health and disease”. Here are some of their findings. The table below summarises the areas of the brain that have been implicated in meditation.

Brain Region Function
Insula Awareness of internal environment (breathing, heartbeat, abdominal sensations, etc.)
Somatosensory Cortex Awareness of external environment (touch, pain, etc.)
Rostrolateral Prefrontal Cortex ‘Higher’ thinking ability
Anterior Cingulate Cortex Emotional awareness and regulation
Hippocampus Memory
Corpus Callosum Integration of information between the 2 hemispheres

Although “psychologically distinct meditation practices show correspondingly diverse neural correlates”, most practices modulate activity in the insula. Given that awareness of breathing or other body sensations is central to most forms of meditation, and the insula’s role in the awareness of the internal environment, it’s not surprising that meditation leads to a change in structure and function of the insula.

Some interesting discoveries have been made regarding pain. The experience of pain is the combination of the purely sensory aspect of pain with feelings of distress, thoughts relating the pain to the self and various negative emotional interpretations of the experience. “These cognitive-affective elaborations appear to be dissociable from, and temporarily subsequent to, the purely sensory aspects of pain – and what’s more, they may contribute significantly to the subjectively experienced unpleasantness of nociceptive experience (Rainville et al., 1997)”. Meditators were found to have lower pain sensitivity. This may be due to their decreased functional connectivity between primary sensory pain areas and secondary affective-elaborative areas. This supports the idea that seasoned meditators remain focussed on purely sensory aspects of pain whereas non-meditators dwell on emotional and cognitive associations of pain.

Other fascinating discoveries are the impact of meditation on aging. There is usually a decrease in function (glucose metabolism) and structure (amount and density of grey matter) of the brain with aging. However, studies show that meditation may help stave off the effects of aging. In fact, some studies have found no age-related decline in function and/or structure!

But, the limitations of current research must be acknowledged:

  • It’s a new field of inquiry
  • Agreement amongst researchers is the exception rather than the norm
  • Few studies control for factors that may exist between meditators and controls e.g. Diet, stress, sleep, personality, etc.
  • Publication bias (the preferential publication of only positive studies)