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Mindfulness and Neuroscience

Mindfulness and Neuroscience


Is There More to Mindfulness Than Just Hype?

“Mindfulness is so powerful that the fact that it comes out of Buddhism is irrelevant.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Twenty years ago, if the word ‘mindfulness’ came up in conversation, most of us living in the west would likely have assumed it was something to do with ‘being careful’. How times have changed. The mindfulness industry is now huge and includes everything from mindfulness smart phone apps to mindfulness hats and mindfulness city walks– there are also said to be around 8,000 books related to mindfulness available through Amazon. There is no doubt way too much hype surrounding mindfulness, but does this mean that it lacks real substance and is just a passing fad?

Of course, mindfulness is not a new thing – unless you consider something that has been around for at least 2,500 years as ‘new’. What is new is the rebranding of mindfulness for the secular world – this repackaging has involved no longer portraying mindfulness as a purely Buddhist practice but rather as a practical mind tool supported by science.

There are plenty of personal testimonies as to the power of mindfulness. This anecdotal evidence is inspirational and encouraging, but in the modern world, a higher standard of evidence is usually required for us to feel convinced. This is why scientific research into the usefulness of mindfulness is so important – and some of the most compelling of this evidence is coming from the world of neuroscience. It is these studies that are telling us that mindfulness is far more than just a passing fad.

Mindfulness Activates the Direct Experience Network

The most common way most of us experience the world is through what is called the default mode network. When this network is activated, it means that we interact with the world through our thoughts (the constant inner narrative) rather than looking directly at reality– if we spend most of our time in the default node network, it is like we walking through life in a daydream.

The default mode network involves different parts of the brain including the dorsal medial subsystem, medial temporal subsystem, and functional hubs. Activation of these areas of the brain can be seen on fMRI scans when the default mode network is in action.

If anyone ever says to you that ‘you spend too much time living in your head’, it is probably a sign that your default mode network is activated much of the time. This may be bad news because thinking too much is associated with:

• Increased stress
• Increased risk of illness
• Addiction
• Insomnia
• Weakened immune system
• Increased risk of depression
• Increased risk of chronic anxiety
• Bad decision making
• Difficulty forming and maintaining relationships
• Lack of purpose in life

Mindfulness activates what is known as the direct experience network – this includes parts of the brain such as the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula region. When the direct experience network is functioning, it means you are experiencing reality rather than thinking about reality – this if a far more satisfying way to live, and the more time we spend in this state, the more inner peace and happiness we experience.

Human brain female side view
Wikimedia Commons

Mindfulness for Pain Relief

It has long been suggested that people who meditate regularly have an improved ability to deal with pain There is now a growing body of research that supports this claim, and neuroscience is providing theories for how mindfulness works to make pain easier to manage.

Studies have found that those who are advanced practitioners of mindfulness meditation can reduce their perception of pain by up to 90% while less experienced meditators can reduce it by up to 57% . The evidence demonstrates that mindfulness performs significantly better than placebo when it comes to pain relief so there is something real going on here.

Ideas from neuroscience suggest mindfulness makes it easier to deal with pain because of how it affects different areas of the brain – overall, these effects create a lower sensitivity to pain. One way this happens is by increasing activity in the ventromedial-prefrontal cortex – one of the functions of this part of the brain is to inhibit the emotional response to pain . Mindfulness is also believed to activate the thalamus which is also involved in the control of emotions in response the stimuli.

Mindfulness and Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons are believed to be located in different parts of the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system. These specialised cells are extremely important for managing social interactions -it is what makes it possible to empathise with others. Mirror neurons can also have an important role in learning as it allows us to mimic behaviour (e.g. this is how infants can learn how to interact with other humans). These cells work by firing in response to actions we see other people performing – it means we are basically mirroring their behaviour.

Some of the important functions mirror neurons may play a large role in include:

• The ability to empathise (to imagine what it is like to be going through what the other person is going through)
• The ability to feel compassion (the urge to alleviate the suffering of other people)
• The ability to guess the intentions and agendas of others (a non-magical form of mind reading)
• Language acquisition

It is suggested that meditation techniques such as metta (loving kindness) meditation and tonglen strengthen the mirror neuron system as these practices involve deliberately focusing on others. Mindfulness also increases our overall awareness of what is going on around us, and thus we have more opportunity to utilize these cells.

We are nowhere near a full understanding of mirror neurons or how mindfulness may be of value in developing this system. There are some exciting possible implications from this type of research but only time will tell if they turn out to be valid.

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