Neurobiological and clinical features of mindfulness meditations

Chiesa, A., & Serretti, A. (2010). A systematic review of neurobiological and clinical features of mindfulness meditations. Psychological medicine, 40(08), 1239-1252. Full text.

From the Abstract. Mindfulness meditation (MM) practices constitute an important group of meditative practices that have received growing attention. The aim of the present paper was to systematically review current evidence on the neurobiological changes and clinical benefits related to MM practice in psychiatric disorders, in physical illnesses and in healthy subjects.

Electroencephalographic (EEG) studies have revealed a significant increase in alpha and theta activity during meditation. Neuroimaging studies showed that MM practice activates the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and that long-term meditation practice is associated with an enhancement of cerebral areas related to attention.

From a clinical viewpoint, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has shown efficacy for many psychiatric and physical conditions and also for healthy subjects, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is mainly efficacious in reducing relapses of depression in patients with three or more episodes, Zen meditation significantly reduces blood pressure and Vipassana meditation shows efficacy in reducing alcohol and substance abuse in prisoners. However, given the low-quality designs of current studies it is difficult to establish whether clinical outcomes are due to specific or non-specific effects of MM.

Measurable changes in cognitive functions over time

Zanesco, A. P., King, B., MacLean, K., & Saron, C. D. (2013). Executive control and felt concentrative engagement following intensive meditation training. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 1, 0Abstract.

Various forms of mental training have been shown to improve performance on cognitively demanding tasks. Individuals trained in meditative practices, for example, show generalized improvements on a variety of tasks assessing attentional performance. A central claim of this training, derived from contemplative traditions, posits that improved attentional performance is accompanied by subjective increases in the stability and clarity of concentrative engagement with one’s object of focus, as well as reductions in felt cognitive effort as expertise develops. However, despite frequent claims of mental stability following training, the phenomenological correlates of meditation-related attentional improvements have yet to be characterized.

In a longitudinal study, we assessed changes in executive control (performance on a 32-minute response inhibition task) and retrospective reports of task engagement (concentration, motivation, and effort) following one month of intensive, daily Vipassana meditation training. Compared to matched controls, training participants exhibited improvements in response inhibition accuracy and reductions in reaction time variability.

The training group also reported increases in concentration, but not effort or motivation, during task performance. Critically, increases in concentration predicted improvements in reaction time variability, suggesting a link between the experience of concentrative engagement and ongoing fluctuations in attentional stability. By incorporating experiential measures of task performance, the present study corroborates phenomenological accounts of stable, clear attentional engagement with the object of meditative focus following extensive training.

These results provide initial evidence that meditation-related changes in felt experience accompany improvements in adaptive, goal-directed behavior, and that such shifts may reflect accurate awareness of measurable changes in performance.