MINDFULNESS: neuroscience

What it is…
• Training in Attentional control (e.g. focusing exercises, the opposite of multi-tasking)
• Observing facts rather than your interpretation of the facts.
• Non-Judgmental Stance
• Acknowledgment of what happened or Acceptance of what is
• Can be used with positive and negative emotions: helps us experience positive emotions more fully and navigate negative emotions

Non judgemental stance
• First step is to be aware of judgments and how they impact you
• Does not mean you are “neutral” or don’t have an opinion about things!
• Turn judgments into a description of facts, likes/dislikes, preferences, or consequence rather than your subjective experience/impression
• Don’t judge your judging!

What is Acceptance?
• Acknowledgment of the facts of a situation and realistic limitations. This can also relate to things going on within your, like thoughts, emotions, sensations and urges
• Does not mean approval, resignation, or passivity
• Is not anti-change: it is a prerequisite for change!
• Can involve sadness or grief

Mindfulness of Thoughts
• Looking at your thoughts vs from them
• Allowing thoughts to be present without allowing them to impact your behavior
• Does not involve changing your thoughts
• Is the opposite of thought suppression
• It may take some practice


Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize, creating new neural connections over the lifespan.


Neurogenesis is the process by which new neurons are  generated.



We can intentionally shape the direction of plasticity changes in our brain. By focusing on wholesome thoughts, for example, and directing our intentions in those ways, we can potentially influence the plasticity of our brains and shape them in ways that can be beneficial. That leads us to the inevitable conclusion that qualities like warm-heartedness and well-being should best be regarded as skills.

-Richie Davidson, PhD, Mindful, August 5, 2015


We can use our minds
To change our brains
To change our minds

Rick Hanson, PhD

If you can name it, you can tame it.

If you can feel it, you can heal it.

Mindfulness practice is invaluable in training people to improve performance in many of the things we take for granted; things we rarely if ever pay attention to. Many of us didn’t even know these process are things that exist. For example:

  1. Breathing and it’s effect on the neurological system.
  2. How much of the brain’s resources we allocate to anything we do.
  3. How we use our eyes in the wide variety of things we do in life.
  4. Internal ways to manage pain and headache.
  5. Emotional regulation.
  6. And the list goes on.

People often ask, how does it work?

The following are skills trained by the practice of mindfulness.

1) Attention Regulation
2) Body Awareness
3) Emotion Regulation
4) Change in Perspective of the sense of self
5) Self-Compassion

But what is the neurophysiology behind this?

Meditation Instructions:
Pay attention to an anchor (i.e., like your breath)
Return to the anchor as attention wanders

Changes noticed clinically:
Enhanced ability to “snap out of it and get a (your) reality check”

Brain Regions involved:
Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) is involved in detecting distractions. It then signals other brain networks to bring things back in focus. For example, the ACC and the frontal insular cortex recruit other networks to regain cognitive control.
Experienced meditators have been found to have increased cortical thickness.

Meditation Instructions:
Focus on internal and external body experiences (eg. breath, body areas in body scan etc)

Changes Noted Clinically:
Cultivates enhanced body awareness
Increased body awareness, subtly of sensations, (interoception)
Increased emotional awareness & differentiation
Increased ability to name emotions (feelings)
The brain regions involved in the above processes are the same regions for empathy (self-compassion improves with mindfulness training, independent of compassion training)

Brain Regions involved:
Insula and Temporo-parietal junction
Somatosensory Cortex also involved
Some research indicates thickening of Right Anterior Insula

1. Prefrontal Cortex

Meditation Instructions:
Let all emotions & experiences arise in awareness
Allow yourself to feel it all
Accept that they are here, non-judgementally
Let go of pushing away experience, i.e., “reactivity”.

E.g., like a little kid in the park, there is no need to chase the kid all over the park, eventually the kid while tire and come back to the parent.

Changes Noted Clinically:

Increased emotional regulation:

  • decreased reactivity & negative moods (e.g., removing the weeds from your garden)
  • increased positive moods (Increased Left PFC) (e.g., planting flowers in your garden)

Changes & Brain Regions Involved:

  • Increases of positive reappraisal of experiences mediated by Dorsal Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) (i.e., being able to see things in a way that is better for you)
  • Increases in non-reactivity to inner experiences (i.e., holds you back from reacting negatively in a way you don’t want when you feel negatively) mediated by Ventral-Medial PFC, Hippocampus & Amygdala
  • PFC projections to Amygdala (a seat in the brain for fear and emotional control) exert inhibitory top down regulation, that is, the PFC can quieten the Amygdala so you can perform the way you want (get your executive functions online)
  • Emotional regulation involves the vmPVC & Hippocampus, suppressing fear allowing control over behavioral reactions to emotions.
    • Neuroimaging shows vmPFC & hippocampus dysfunctional in PTSD & MDD
  • Increased gray matter in hippocampus for meditators after 8 week MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction)
  • Reduced scores on perceived stress positively correlated with decreased gray matter in right amygdala

2. Parasympathetic Nervous System

Physiology and Training:
See the following articles: autonomic dysfunction, Biofeedback, HRV training

Changes Noted Clinically:
Relaxation (see article on Biofeedback). This relaxation and random (uncomfortable/tense) thoughts get associated internally, helping relax the emotional tension when you get those thoughts or face those stressful situations again in the future.

Brain Regions involved:
Mediated by vmPVC & Hippocampus

Meditation Instructions:
Detachment with the static sense of self

Changes Noted Clinically:
Self-reported changes in self

Brain Regions Involved:
Medial PFC, posterior cingulate cortex, insula, parietal junction

  1. Hölzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago, D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(6), 537–559. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691611419671
  2. MacFarlane, Ginny. Live Course “Mindfulness for Physicians”. University of Toronto 5 Weekend Program in Counselling & Psychotherapy. September 2019- May 2020.
  3. MacFarlane, Ginny. http://mindfulmood.com/

Last update: March 2020