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Research Digest

BRAIN, MENTAL HEALTH October 19, 2016October 19, 2016

This is what eight weeks of mindfulness training


does to your brain
(https://digest.bps.org.uk/2016/10/19/this-is-what-eight-weeks-of-mindfulness-training-does-to-
your-brain/)
By Christian Jarrett
(http://www.psychologywriter.org.uk/)

Practising mindfulness – spending time paying attention to your current mental experiences in a non-
judgmental way – has been associated with many beneficial outcomes
(https://digest.bps.org.uk/2015/06/12/the-psychology-of-mindfulness-digested/), including
reduced anxiety and improved decision making (although note, there could be some adverse effects
for some people (https://digest.bps.org.uk/2015/06/12/the-psychology-of-mindfulness-digested/)).
What are the neural correlates of these effects? A new systematic review
(http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278262616301312) in Brain and Cognition has
looked at all studies published prior to July this year that investigated brain changes associated with
eight weeks of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction or Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. The
combined results suggest that a short course of secular mindfulness training leads to multiple brain
changes similar in nature to those seen in people who have practised religious or spiritual meditation
for a lifetime.

Rinske Gotink and her colleagues found 30 relevant studies that used MRI or fMRI brain imaging to
look at the effects of mindfulness training on brain structure and function, including 13 randomly
controlled trials. Associated brain changes, in terms of activity levels and volume and connectivity
changes, have been reported in the prefrontal cortex (a region associated with conscious decision
making and emotional regulation and other functions), the insula (which represents internal body
states among other things), the cingulate cortex (decision making), the hippocampus (memory) and
the amygdala (emotion). Based on what we know about the function of these brain regions, Gotink’s
team said these changes appear to be consistent with the idea that mindfulness helps your brain
regulate your emotions.

Most of these brain changes linked with brief mindfulness training are similar to the brain changes
associated with long-term spiritual or religious meditation, although the finding for the
amygdala (reduced activity and volume after mindfulness) has not usually been observed in long-
term meditators. The researchers speculated this may be because meditating monks and nuns, who
have featured in much of the meditation research, started out with little stress – their amygdalae were
“calm” already. In contrast, students of mindfulness are more likely to start out stressed and to reap a
calming benefit from the training, which is perhaps what is reflected in the changes
to their amygdalae structure and function.

If this sounds highly speculative, it is. This study provides a useful roundup of all that we know so
far about mindfulness-based brain changes, but the reality, as the researchers acknowledge, is that the
existing evidence base reflects a mixed bag of methods and approaches of variable quality and with a
publication bias toward positive results quite likely. Moreover, the meaning and size of the brain
changes is open to interpretation, and the precise cause of them is not clear because mindfulness
training is multifaceted and includes non-specific components such as the simple act of meeting up
with other people in a sociable setting.

—8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction induces brain changes similar to traditional long-term
meditation practice – A systematic review
(http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278262616301312)

Christian Jarrett (http://www.psychologywriter.org.uk/) (@Psych_Writer


(https://twitter.com/psych_Writer)) is Editor of BPS Research Digest (https://digest.bps.org.uk/)

6 Comments (https://digest.bps.org.uk/2016/10/19/this-is-what-eight-weeks-of-mindfulness-
training-does-to-your-brain/#comments)

6 thoughts on “This is what eight weeks of mindfulness


training does to your brain”

kdn026 says:
October 20, 2016 at 12:35 am
Mindfulness and meditation practices change the structure and function of the brain in positive
ways, just like physical activity positively changes muscle structure and function. Regarding
‘adverse effects’ mentioned in this article, most risks appear to be related to a poor understanding
of what exactly constitutes effective mindfulness practice [see for example the article titled “Are
there risks associated with using mindfulness for the treatment of psychopathology?” published
in Clinical Practice (2014) by Shonin, et al.].

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