Kelly McSweeney

Aug 14th 2020

The Science Behind Mindfulness Meditation Is All in Your Head


Mindfulness is a meditation practice that involves intentionally paying attention to the present moment. Researchers studying the science behind mindfulness meditation have demonstrated that it can actually change the way our brains work. As more and more Americans report depression and anxiety, there has been increased public interest and scientific attention to mindfulness in recent years. Could something as simple as meditating be a realistic alternative to pharmaceutical solutions?

“The science is new on this subject, but it’s deeply embedded in the religious practices, especially in south Asian countries like India and Nepal,” said Muhammad Aadil, M.D., resident physician in psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

He reviewed the latest research on mindfulness in the journal Cureus and as a physician, he educates his patients about mindfulness. We spoke with Dr. Aadil to learn whether mindfulness is a fad or the real deal, and to understand what happens to the brain during meditation.

Benefits of Mindfulness

“Our mind is always wandering and always thinking about different things and not staying in the present moment,”said Aadil. “So, if you can train your mind to stick in the present time, it can truly change your life.”

Scientific studies have demonstrated that mindfulness can help focus our thoughts. According to the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, consistent meditation can improve your compassion, ability to solve problems, attention span and resiliency to stress. Mindfulness helps the mind and body recover from stressful situations. For example, researchers have found that mindfulness makes breakups and divorce easier.

In general, according to Greater Good, mindfulness is a positive influence on relationships with loved ones. For example, studies have shown that when couples discussed a conflict, the stress hormone cortisol spiked during these difficult conversations, as expected. But after the conflict was over, the more mindful participants calmed down faster and quickly returned to normal cortisol levels.

Mindfulness can be a helpful tool for parents. It has been linked to lower stress, depression, and anxiety among parents of preschoolers and children with disabilities, and mindful parenting practices can help parents be more empathetic with their children.

Scientific American reports that evidence-backed benefits of mindfulness include memory improvement, stress reduction, healthier diet and sleep improvement. One study found undergraduate students who took a two-week mindfulness class performed better on the reading comprehension portion of the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) test used for graduate school admissions by 16 percentile points.

Mindfulness programs have widely been shown to help people cope with mental health such as anxiety and stress, and they can also improve physical health by helping people improve their eating and sleeping habits. For example, people who meditate with their eyes closed fall asleep faster, Aadil said.

Mental Health and Meditation Practices

Mindfulness can be part of psychological treatment called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and eating disorders. In those situations, meditation can supplement, though not replace standard treatment.

“The gold standard treatment is medication,” says Aadil. He adds, “Maybe in the future, with better techniques for mindful CBT, we might be able to reduce the dosage of the medication, but I don’t see that it will completely replace medication.”

But for mild depression and mild anxiety, mindfulness practices can be very effective without medication, according to Aadil.

“If I see a patient that’s in the emergency or in the outpatient clinic,” said Aadil, “I ask if they have heard of any mindfulness techniques. And if they say no, then I just educate them on the basics of mindfulness.”

When Aadil has more time with patients, he does a guided two- to five-minute mindfulness therapy. The idea is to have the patient close their eyes, focus on breathing slowly and being only in the present moment. Depending on how technically savvy his patients are, he may also suggest meditation apps to help them continue to practice mindfulness at home.

What Happens to the Brain During Meditation

Neuroscientists have studied mindfulness and discovered that meditation actually changes the physical structure of the brain. The Observer reports that when Harvard Medical School scientist Sara Lazar was skeptical about her yoga teacher’s claims about the benefits of meditation, she used MRI technology to find proof. Surprisingly, she observed that meditation can help us stay sharper as we age. The frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain associated with memories, typically thins out as we age. The brain scans revealed that older meditators had the same amount of gray matter in their cortex as their younger counterparts.

In another study, the Harvard neuroscientists observed people who had never meditated before as they went through an eight-week mindfulness training program. The results demonstrated that mindfulness activates the parts of the brain related to memory storage, empathy and emotional regulation, as evidenced by an increase in brain volume in the hippocampus and temporoparietal junction. At the same time, meditation reduces activity in the fight or flight survival instinct part of the brain (amygdala), which triggers stress hormones.

According to Greater Good Magazine, long-term, consistent meditation makes people more resilient because it reduces the inflammatory response in people when they are exposed to stressors.

“There are certain inflammatory markers for depression and anxiety that you can measure in the blood,” Aadil explained. “For individuals who are meditating for a long time, meaning for more than a year or two years, those inflammation markers go down in the blood.”

Training the Brain

While there is science behind mindfulness meditation, some studies have shown mixed results. For example, according to Greater Good, a study showed that a mindfulness program for adults had no impact on depression or anxiety in teens. Many other studies were inconclusive about the benefits of mindfulness practices.

One big issue is that not everyone is motivated to do brain training exercises. For many people, it’s difficult to sit still for several minutes.

“One thing we can do is start teaching kids or children at a very early age, at least some basic mindfulness techniques,” says Aadil.

Even a mindfulness expert such as Aadil admitted that he sees low success rates with his patients. Most of his patients are homeless, dealing with severe financial stress and addiction problems, so it’s difficult for them to prioritize meditation when they have more urgent issues to address.

After extensively studying mindfulness practices and learning the proven benefits, Aadil still finds it difficult.

I have read so much about meditation,” Aadil says. “I know how effective it is, I know how beneficial it is, I have multiple apps, I have a reminder for every day. But I’m still not able to practice daily.”

Mindfulness is an exercise for training the brain. It’s not only about carving out a few moments of peace in your day. Just like the benefits of physical exercise extend beyond your sweat session, mindfulness has lasting benefits. Like many other skills, meditation is easy for some people and challenging for others. But like any other skill, it takes practice and dedication.