Neuroscience and mindfulness meditation

Tang, Y.-Y., & Leve, L. D. (2016). A translational neuroscience perspective on mindfulness meditation as a prevention strategy. Translational Behavioral Medicine, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 63–72. http://doi.org/10.1007/s13142-015-0360-x. Full text.

See also: MacKinnon, M. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness: How the default mode network helps explain the benefit of a deep breath. Psychology Today. Full text.

Mindfulness meditation research mainly focuses on psychological outcomes such as behavioral, cognitive, and emotional functioning. However, the neuroscience literature on mindfulness meditation has grown in recent years.

This paper provides an overview of relevant neuroscience and psychological research on the effects of mindfulness meditation. We propose a translational* prevention framework of mindfulness and its effects. Drawing upon the principles of prevention science, this framework integrates neuroscience and prevention research and postulates underlying brain regulatory mechanisms that explain the impact of mindfulness on psychological outcomes via self-regulation mechanisms linked to underlying brain systems.

We conclude by discussing potential clinical and practice implications of this model and directions for future research.


* “The term translational medicine was introduced in the 1990s but only gained wide usage in the early 2000s. Its definition varies according to the stakeholder. Patients, physicians, and other practitioners tend to use the term to refer to the need to accelerate the incorporation of benefits of research into clinical medicine and to close the gap between “what we know” and “what we practice.” Academics tend to interpret translational medicine as the testing of novel concepts from basic research in clinical situations, which in turn provide opportunity for the identification of new concepts. In industry it is used in reference to a process that is aimed at expediting the development and commercialization of known therapies. Although different, these interpretations are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they reflect different priorities for achieving a common goal.” (https://www.britannica.com/science/translational-medicine

Mindfulness-based curriculum for preschoolers

Flook, L., et al. (2014). Promoting Prosocial Behavior and Self-Regulatory Skills in Preschool Children Through a Mindfulness-Based Kindness Curriculum. Developmental Psychology, Nov 10. 

From the Abstract. Self-regulatory abilities are robust predictors of important outcomes across the life span, yet they are rarely taught explicitly in school. Using a randomized controlled design, the present study investigated the effects of a 12-week mindfulness-based Kindness Curriculum (KC) delivered in a public school setting on executive function, self-regulation, and prosocial behavior in a sample of 68 preschool children.

The KC intervention group showed greater improvements in social competence and earned higher report card grades in domains of learning, health, and social-emotional development, whereas the control group exhibited more selfish behavior over time.

These findings, observed over a relatively short intervention period, support the promise of this program for promoting self-regulation and prosocial behavior in young children. They also support the need for future investigation of program implementation across diverse settings.

Improves academic performance by middle school students

Tang, Y. Y., Tang, R., Jiang, C., & Posner, M. I. (2014). Short-Term Meditation Intervention Improves Self-Regulation and Academic Performance. Journal of Child Adolescent Behavior, 2(154), 2. Full text (open access).

From the Abstract. Research has found that improved higher effortful control, a measure of self-regulation, improves performance of middle school students. Integrative body-mind training (IBMT) has been shown to improve attentional networks related to self-regulation. We hypothesize that an IBMT intervention will improve academic performance of adolescents.

Students age 13-18 were recruited from middle and high school in Beijing, China and randomly assigned to either IBMT or a relaxation training control (RT). Students were given 6 weeks of IBMT intervention with 30 min per day at school. The improved performance in attention and aspects of academic performance were measured.

Compared to RT, IBMT intervention showed significantly greater improvement in attention and in academic performance (scores of literacy, math, and second language).

Interventions with fatigue in neurological disorders (review)

Immink, M. A. (2014). Fatigue in neurological disorders: a review of self-regulation and mindfulness-based interventions. Fatigue: Biomedicine, Health & Behavior, (ahead-of-print), 1-17.

From the AbstractFatigue is prevalent in neurological disorders and is associated with increased disability and mortality rates. Currently, clinical assessment and management of fatigue is difficult as underlying mechanisms remain poorly understood.

This narrative review integrates models of pathological fatigue with the concepts of self-regulation and mindfulness. Findings from clinical trials testing the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions (MBI) for fatigue in neurological disorders are also reviewed.

Recent definitions and models of pathological fatigue suggest that neurological disorders might instigate maladaptive changes in self-regulation leading to difficulties in sustaining movement and disproportionate levels of perceived effort. MBI might be effective in the management of fatigue since mindfulness training is thought to promote self-regulation by developing attention control and cognitive and emotional flexibility. Findings from a small number of clinical trials provide limited support for the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions for fatigue in neurological disorders.

Further research is … needed to test the efficacy of MBI including large randomised controlled trials with active control conditions and which directly assess changes in mindfulness along with fatigue.

Framework for understanding neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness

Vago, D. R., & Silbersweig, D. A. (2012). Self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): a framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 6.

Mindfulness—as a state, trait, process, type of meditation, and intervention–has proven to be beneficial across a diverse group of psychological disorders as well as for general stress reduction. Yet, there remains a lack of clarity in the operationalization of this construct, and underlying mechanisms.

Here, we provide an integrative theoretical framework and systems-based neurobiological model that explains the mechanisms by which mindfulness reduces biases related to self-processing and creates a sustainable healthy mind. Mindfulness is described through systematic mental training that develops meta-awareness (self-awareness), an ability to effectively modulate one’s behavior (self-regulation), and a positive relationship between self and other that transcends self-focused needs and increases prosocial characteristics (self-transcendence). >>> continue with full text

Conceptual and neural perspective of mindfulness meditation

Hölzel, B. K., et al. (2011). How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(6), 537-559. Full text.

From the Abstract: Cultivation of mindfulness, the nonjudgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment, produces beneficial effects on well-being and ameliorates psychiatric and stress-related symptoms. Mindfulness meditation has therefore increasingly been incorporated into psychotherapeutic interventions. Although the number of publications in the field has sharply increased over the last two decades, there is a paucity of theoretical reviews that integrate the existing literature into a comprehensive  theoretical framework.

In this article, we explore several components through which mindfulness meditation exerts its effects: (a) attention regulation, (b) body awareness, (c) emotion regulation (including reappraisal and exposure, extinction,  and reconsolidation), and (d) change in perspective on the self. Recent empirical research, including practitioners’ self-reports  and experimental data, provides evidence supporting these mechanisms. Functional and structural neuroimaging studies have begun to explore the neuroscientific processes underlying these components.

Evidence suggests that mindfulness practice is  associated with neuroplastic changes in the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, temporo-parietal junction, fronto-limbic network, and default mode network structures. The authors suggest that the mechanisms described here work synergistically, establishing  a process of enhanced self-regulation.