Evidence from neuroimaging studies (lit review)

Marchand, W. R. (2014). Neural mechanisms of mindfulness and meditation: Evidence from neuroimaging studies. World Journal of Radiology, 6(7), 471-479. Full text.

mindimagesAbstract. Mindfulness is the dispassionate, moment-by-moment awareness of sensations, emotions and thoughts. Mindfulness-based interventions are being increasingly used for stress, psychological well being, coping with chronic illness as well as adjunctive treatments for psychiatric disorders. However, the neural mechanisms associated with mindfulness have not been well characterized. Recent functional and structural neuroimaging studies are beginning to provide insights into neural processes associated with the practice of mindfulness.

A review of this literature revealed compelling evidence that mindfulness impacts the function of the medial cortex and associated default mode network as well as insula and amygdala. Additionally, mindfulness practice appears to effect lateral frontal regions and basal ganglia, at least in some cases. Structural imaging studies are consistent with these findings and also indicate changes in the hippocampus. While many questions remain unanswered, the current literature provides evidence of brain regions and networks relevant for understanding neural processes associated with mindfulness.

May result in enduring changes in mental function

Desbordes, G., et al. (2012). Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, 6:292. Full text.

From the Abstract: The amygdala has been repeatedly implicated in emotional processing of both positive and negative valence stimuli. Previous studies suggest that the amygdala response to emotional stimuli is lower when the subject is in a meditative state of mindful attention, both in beginner meditators after an eight-week meditation intervention and in expert meditators.

However, the longitudinal effects of meditation training on amygdala responses have not been reported when participants are in an ordinary, non-meditative state. In this study, we investigated how eight weeks of training in meditation affects amygdala responses to emotional stimuli in subjects when in a non-meditative state. …

[Our] finding suggests that the effects of meditation training on emotional processing might transfer to non-meditative states. This is consistent with the hypothesis that meditation training may induce learning that is not stimulus- or task-specific, but process-specific, and thereby may result in enduring changes in mental function.