Mindfulness meditation improves connections in the brain

Carolyn Schatz

Former Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

When I’m stressed, I listen to a 20-minute mindfulness meditation tape. It always helps me feel calmer and more relaxed. Many meditative practices can do this. But mindfulness meditation is getting a lot of attention because it seems to help with so many physical and psychological problems—like high blood pressure, chronic pain, psoriasis, sleep trouble, anxiety, and depression. It’s also been shown to boost immune function and stop binge eating. No one knows for sure what’s behind these benefits, but physical changes in the brain probably play a role.

Mindfulness meditation is a mental discipline. You start by focusing your attention on your breath, a sensation in the body, or a chosen word or phrase. You note the thoughts, emotions, and background sounds that arise from moment to moment, observing them without analyzing them or making judgments about what’s going on around you. If you drift into thoughts about the past or concerns about the future, you bring your attention back to the present, for example, by refocusing on your breathing. It takes practice.

A new study, published in the May 2011 issue of Neuroimage, suggests that one effect of all this focusing and refocusing is increased brain connectivity. Researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles compared the brain activity of volunteers who had finished eight weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction training with that of volunteers who did not do such training. Functional MRI scans showed stronger connections in several regions of the meditators’ brains—especially those associated with attention and auditory and visual processing. Unfortunately, the study didn’t scan the volunteers’ brains before mindfulness training, so no one can say for sure that mindfulness training was responsible for the differences.

At Massachusetts General Hospital, researchers used MRI scans to document before and after changes in the brain’s gray matter—the “processing” neurons—associated with mindfulness meditation. The density of gray matter increased in regions governing such distinctly different activities as memory, self-awareness, and compassion, and decreased in the amygdala—the part of the brain associated with fear and stress. We covered this intriguing research in the April issue of Harvard Women’s Health Watch.

At the moment, scientists can only speculate about the relationship between these brain changes and the health benefits associated with mindfulness meditation. But the research adds to growing evidence that meditative practices can alter the body at a fundamental level—even, it turns out, at the level of our genes. Meditation elicits the “relaxation response,” a state of deep relaxation first described more than 35 years ago by mind-body pioneer Dr. Herbert Benson, currently emeritus director of the Benson-Henry Institute of Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. Since then, Benson and his colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center have discovered that relaxation techniques (including meditation and yoga) turn certain sets of genes on and off in people who practice them regularly. Benson, who is the medical editor of Stress Management: Approaches for preventing and reducing stress (a Special Health Report from Harvard Health Publishing, which also publishes Harvard Women’s Health Watch), says these genes are involved with controlling “how the body handles free radicals, inflammation processes, and cell death.” You can read about the gene research here.


  1. Peter Lind

    This is a good reminder once again to be mindful. If we can have times throughout the day where we stop and pause and remind ourselves to become aware of our present situation we can become mindful. The next step of course is to do this throughout the day.

    Some people even take it a step further and to actually practice meditation.

  2. markz111

    the points were sent across is very understandable. I loved it.

  3. cghauling

    It is amazing how much more we now know about the brain. In recent years we are finding more and more out about the brain and how it works.

  4. Mike

    We don’t need to do MRI scans to prove the effectiveness of mindfulness or other therapies.

    Ask a patient to say how much a particular therapy helped them on a scale of 1 to 5. This will be more accurate than an MRI scan at ascertaining the effectiveness of a particular technique.

    Do neurologists spend their nights scanning their own brains working out whether they prefer cheesecake or chocolate ice cream? Surely it’s quicker just to taste them and decide from your actual experience!? This method is much cheaper and more accurate.

    MRI scans are a less accurate and more costly way of saying if something is effective. The scans are missing the wood for the trees.

  5. Anthony1223

    Nobody but we ourselves can gives us stress . The more you cling to ,the more you suffer from afraid of losing.Mindful meditation let us understand clearly that there is nothing to cling to because I,mine,you,yours do not exist in ever changing world.When we possess nothing we have nothing to lose, then we don’t have to afraid of losing anything.Everything including we human beings is changing with dynamic equilibrium.

  6. Anthony1223

    You can find the step-by-step methods of meditation from the book Mindfulness of Breathing by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu translated from Thai version into English by Bhikkhu Nagasena.

  7. Anthony1223

    Mindfulness meditation is not only good for physical and mental health but also help us live at the present moment.
    With time it will help us understand who we really are.

  8. Birdie Dykes

    It is possible to just make everything right and at the same time having a gain in mental fitness through meditation? If this happens, a medical problem may be present but meditation brings a sense of peace and calm to help a person overcome the fear and anxiety associated with illness. This practice can help to improve quality of life while the body is healing. I am grateful for your post here.

  9. Mark

    Meditation has such a long tradition and I am always amazed at how much clearer I feel after a good meditation. Do you have any step-by-step methods you use to deepen your meditation practice?

    • Yourstruly

      I’m a big fan of mindfulness teachers Tara Brach and Jack Kornfeld. Brach’s Radical Acceptance and Kornfeld’s A Lamp in the Darkness both come with guided meditations on CDs that I use.

  10. lee duploy

    Tai Chi and dementia.

    With an ever increasing older population and more media suggestions that we should live longer and be happier, there is growing evidence that a simple exercise like Tai Chi can delay the onset of dementia in older patients.
    Tai Chi in a sense requires little thought but is a series of movemnts which allow the patient to participate without too much effort.

    Hong Kong has among the worlds longest living older population, inspite of the populution so previlent here.
    Tai Chi is practised in every park here by older folk , in my opnion definitely is proof of longevity.

    I am surprised that hospitals in the west do not adopt this simple method of “mind body’ concept instead of persisting with distraction techniques which involves sedation and tv.

    thank you

    lee du ploy (hong kong)

    • Alice VR

      I agree that Tai Chi is immensely powerful and a gift to us from the East. The hospitals where I live near San Francisco all offer classes in Tai Chi, as do other Wellness Centers and schools. None of them encourage TV as you suggested, though I would say many individuals may self medicate or distract in unhealthy ways. Here, exercise and meditation are very important and you do see Tai Chi in the parks in San Francisco!

  11. Fern Almond

    Have become very interested in self hypnosis and am trying various MP3 audio downloads for several subjects.
    [URL removed by moderator]

  12. Shine

    Meditation really helps the body and mind to relax. A good practice to do especially for stressful people.
    [URL removed by moderator]

  13. Carolyn Schatz

    An interesting new study based on a trial of mindfulness based stress reduction finds that mindfulness meditation helps relieve irritable bowel symptoms in women. To read an abstract of this study, go to http://bit.ly/onBXvM

  14. Amy

    Great thing to share! I have the same feeling! For a great period I have thought that I cannot meditate, that it’s too relaxing for me. I’m the living proof that it’s not the truth. Music can do wonders!


  15. Fatmp3

    Great article You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something which I think I would never understand. thanks for the sharing .

  16. Mark

    Great Post you guys!

    Cheers, Mark Watson
    [URL removed by moderator]

  17. Anonymous

    can’t wait to acquire the meditation tapes.so excited.thanks for sharing

  18. Emme

    Excellent article Mindfulness has also been used to control depression and teen cutting
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  19. Melinda

    Where can I get the meditation tapes?

  20. Jael

    Many people also use meditation to improve their health conditions. Since meditation can aid in relaxation, it can reduce stress and lower blood pressure. Meditating is a good way to forgo the tension of a bad day.
    [URL removed by moderator]

  21. Paul Ang

    Regarding your statement, “A new study, published in the May 2011 issue of Neuroimage, suggests that one effect of all this focusing and refocusing is increased brain connectivity.” how do you do your study?


  22. D. Taveras

    Hi – I was at Harvard several years ago, and I remember purchasing, for $5, a mindfulness meditation tape. It was a wonderful resource for me for a long time. Unfortunately, I’ve lost that set of tapes. Can you let me know if I can re-purchase them? Maybe as CDs or MP3s

  23. Jan Hoy

    One of our leading heart specialists here in Sydney Australia
    has recommended a product called RESPeRATE which is a twenty minute mediation to specially chosen music, but unfortunately we are not able to purchase it in Australia yet. Do you know of this product and what do you think? As a musician and retired teacher myself and having done class meditation with my students I would probably be able to set up something similar for myself and hubby?

    • kent norton

      there are a ton of meditation and sleep videos and music free on u tube. you do not need to purchase it. there is software that willput the mp3 directly on your itunes. your brain will thank you.

  24. Noni

    Yoga and meditation put the busy mind at ease and create space for our wise self to find its wordless expression: intuition. We realize the joy of just being…

  25. Elise

    Maha Meditation can go deeper in terms of effect – not only improve connectivity of brain cells, but also repair and reform cells in other part of body. [URL removed by moderator]

  26. Alan

    I believe that meditation has so many positive effects on overall health because it brings the body back to “homeostasis,” or its natural state. All organs and systems within the body begin to work in harmony when they are not bothered by external stimuli.

    Yoga is a great form of meditative movement that give these same results

  27. Mike J Hughes

    I like this very much .There is as yet much more esoteric mysteries that can not be revealed, as yet to dangerous due to the fact that the greater majority of humanity are not at this stage of development in mentality to use it wisely.

  28. Seeker

    I recommend reading the book ” Mindfulness in Plain English ”
    its my bible in Mindfulness Meditation

  29. How to hypnotise

    Very interesting, you are actually explaining a self hypnosis technique that I use to hypnotise myself. Remarkable that this is being studied by these research Universities and I guess it only cements the theory that these techniques have results.

    Thank you for the interesting article.

    Paul Wiwatowski

    [URL removed by moderator]

    • kent norton

      herbert benson, m.d. at harvard med studied the yogis 40 years ago. this is old research. meditation, yoga, tai chi, reiki. its all taught at harvard medical school.its been a long time coming

  30. A Different Designer

    Very Interesting.

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