Enlightened Neurons: Effects of Meditation on the Brain and Body

Figure 1: Brain regions involved in the components of mindfulness meditation (Apollo Medicine, 2020)
It has long been claimed that meditation and ancient breath-focused practices strengthened the mind. The beneficial effects of meditation have spurred a growing body of scientific research into its underlying psychological processes and effects on the central nervous system and the rest of the body. A large body of research indicates that practicing meditation is associated with increased performance on a wide range of different cognitive tasks that measure features from neuroplasticity to attention to working memory. Meditation has not only cognitive benefits but also demonstrates a reduction in chronic pain and reduced rumination on chronic pain.
The limbic system
Meditation affects specific areas in the brain, a major one being the limbic system. The limbic system refers to a set of substructures in the brain that are important for emotional regulation, autonomic and endocrine function, and response to emotional stimuli (RajMohan & Mohandas, 2007).

Figure 2: A labeled diagram of the limbic system (Kerr et al., 2013).
The hypothalamus is small, taking up <1% of the total brain volume. Nevertheless, it is crucial in regulating metabolic processes, such as synthesizing and secreting neurohormones (Isa Shitzky, 2017).
The amygdala consists of a group of neurons in an almond-like shape. It is essential in processing emotions, especially fear (Amunts et al., 2005).
The hippocampus is involved in spatial memory and navigation. It also helps turn short-term memory into long-term memory (Bachevalier, 2019).
The thalamus relays motor and sensory signals to a region called the cerebral cortex. It also regulates alertness and sleep (Sherman, 2006).
A randomized control trial by scientists at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences shows that meditation-based interventions increase neuroplasticity[1] and even reduce the severity of major depressive disorder (Tolahunase et al., 2018). There was a significant increase in BDNF (ng/ml) [p < 0.001] after meditation-based lifestyle intervention compared to control group.
Attentional control
In order to do a simple mindfulness breathing exercise, sustained attention is required to maintain focus solely on the breath. Simultaneously, cognitive control is required to detect and prevent mind wandering. In a longitudinal randomized control group EEG study, participants performed a computerized Stroop task after receiving 3 hours of mindfulness meditation training. Results from the EEG demonstrate that meditation leads to improved self-regulation of attention (Puderbaugh & Emmady, 2021).
Working memory
Multiple object tracking (MOT) programs combine both sustained attention and visual working memory and are used to measure working memory. MOT is a valuable tool to measure many things, such as visual attention skills in children (Trick, Jaspers-Fayer, et al., 2005) and age-related attentional decline (Trick, Perl, et al., 2005).
In a study (Schöne et al., 2018) where the meditation group practiced on average for 41.71 (SD = 22.02) minutes per week in 3.86 meditation sessions, there was a statistically significant (p < 0.05) training-related improvement in MOT.
Chronic pain
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce self-reported rumination, which is “the negative repetitive, self-related internal cognitions that predominate in major depression” (Kerr et al., 2013). For disorders that include chronic pain, such as arthritis, mindfulness meditation helps patients reduce their tendency to catastrophize and have repetitive, negative thoughts, such as “the pain is “terrible, and I feel it is never going to get better” (Kerr et al., 2013).
Due to many self-reports of less rumination, many reviews (Bishop, 2002) have concluded that metacognition[2] is the grand mechanism that underlies the efficacy of mindfulness practice. This view suggests that metacognition is an emergent property[3] of mindfulness practices derived from sub-processes like attention and emotion control.
[1] The ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections (Puderbaugh & Emmady, 2021).
[2] The processes used to assess, monitor, and plan one’s performance and understanding, including awareness of one’s thinking (Chick, 2013).
[3] An emergent property is a property that manifests itself as the result of various system components working together (Nelson, 2018).
Amunts, K., Kedo, O., Kindler, M., Pieperhoff, P., Mohlberg, H., Shah, N. J., Habel, U., Schneider, F., & Zilles, K. (2005). Cytoarchitectonic mapping of the human amygdala, hippocampal region and entorhinal cortex: intersubject variability and probability maps. Anatomy and Embryology, 210(5-6), 343–352. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-005-0025-5
Apollo Medicine. (2020). Brain regions involved in the components of mindfulness meditation [Online Image]. In Apollo Medicine. https://www.apollomedicine.org/viewimage.asp?img=ApolloMed_2017_14_4_198_224728_f1.jpg
Bachevalier, J. (2019). Nonhuman primate models of hippocampal development and dysfunction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(52), 26210–26216. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1902278116
Bishop, S. R. (2002). What Do We Really Know About Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction? Psychosomatic Medicine, 64(1), 71–83. https://doi.org/10.1097/00006842-200201000-00010
Chick, N. (2013, February 9). Metacognition. Vanderbilt University; Vanderbilt University. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/metacognition/
Isa Shitzky. (2017, July 18). The Brain’s Emotional… Dana Foundation; Dana Foundation. https://www.dana.org/article/the-brains-emotional-development/
Kerr, C. E., Sacchet, M. D., Lazar, S. W., Moore, C. I., & Jones, S. R. (2013). Mindfulness starts with the body: somatosensory attention and top-down modulation of cortical alpha rhythms in mindfulness meditation. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00012
Moore, A., Gruber, T., Derose, J., & Malinowski, P. (2012). Regular, brief mindfulness meditation practice improves electrophysiological markers of attentional control. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2012.00018
Nelson, D. (2018, October 29). What Are Emergent Properties? Definition And Examples | Science Trends. Science Trends. https://sciencetrends.com/what-are-emergent-properties-definition-and-examples/
Puderbaugh, M., & Emmady, P. D. (2021). Neuroplasticity. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32491743/
RajMohan, V., & Mohandas, E. (2007). The limbic system. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 49(2), 132. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.33264
Schöne, B., Gruber, T., Graetz, S., Bernhof, M., & Malinowski, P. (2018). Mindful breath awareness meditation facilitates efficiency gains in brain networks: A steady-state visually evoked potentials study. Scientific Reports, 8(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-32046-5
Sherman, S. (2006). Thalamus. Scholarpedia, 1(9), 1583. https://doi.org/10.4249/scholarpedia.1583
Tolahunase, M. R., Sagar, R., Faiq, M., & Dada, R. (2018). Yoga- and meditation-based lifestyle intervention increases neuroplasticity and reduces severity of major depressive disorder: A randomized controlled trial. Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience, 36(3), 423–442. https://doi.org/10.3233/rnn-170810
Trick, L. M., Jaspers-Fayer, F., & Sethi, N. (2005). Multiple-object tracking in children: The “Catch the Spies” task. Cognitive Development, 20(3), 373–387. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogdev.2005.05.009
Trick, L. M., Perl, T., & Sethi, N. (2005). Age-Related Differences in Multiple-Object Tracking. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 60(2), P102–P105. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/60.2.p102

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