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Mind Over Matter: The Science Behind Mindful Meditation | NeuroConnections

Katie Brohawn

Katie Brohawn directs research for ExpandED Schools. This blog is part of our NeuroConnections blog series, where we explore the bridge between neuroscience and education.

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I recently relocated from Manhattan to Berkeley, California. To say the vibe here is different is perhaps an obvious understatement. It should come as no surprise that the mindfulness-in-education movement that’s taking root in the United States is quite prevalent in schools here in the East Bay. That said, New York is quickly following suit -- including ExpandED Schools’ very own Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School.

You may have read The Atlantic article last August, which paints a great picture of just what mindfulness looks like in the classroom and provides a nice overview of the research that supports the practice. The article specifically cites fascinating neuroimaging studies by neuroscientists including Drs. Britta Hölzel and Sara Lazar at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).

Back when I was a grad student doing my dissertation research, which involved inducing stress in subjects and exploring patterns of brain activation, Britta and Sara were (literally) down the hall doing the exact opposite – researching how the practice of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) has the ability to physically change your brain. Ten years later, I am happy to have had a chance to catch up with Britta and learn even more about the ways in which her research can help us leverage the power of MBSR to help our students in the classroom.

Katie Brohawn: Can you give a brief description of what mindfulness-based meditation is? What are some simple ways that schools can incorporate mindfulness-based meditation into their school day?

Britta Hölzel: Mindfulness is often defined as the awareness that emerges when we bring our attention to present-moment experiences and meet them in a non-judgmental way with acceptance and curiosity. A typical mindfulness practice is breath awareness, and that’s also a practice that can easily be incorporated into a school day (e.g., at the beginning of a lecture/class). Students simply focus on the sensations of breathing: How does it feel when the breath enters the body, when the chest and belly slightly expand with the in-breath, and how does it feel when the breath leaves the body? Other practices include the ‘body scan,’ where we guide attention through the entire body, part by part, and feel the sensations that we encounter. And another includes the awareness of emotions or thoughts. 

(Image: The Atlantic)

One of our schools, Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School (TMALS,) actively practices mindfulness-based meditation with its students. According to Principal Dawn Brooks DeCosta, “Practicing meditation has reduced negative behavior and suspensions and boosted the academic performance of our students.” What behavioral effects have been reported with mindfulness mediation?

BH: With mindfulness practice, we train our attention to stay focused on a chosen object, and to bring it back to that focus whenever we notice that it has wandered away. We also train ourselves to become aware of our internal states, and to relate to our thoughts and feelings in a skillful and accepting way, rather than just being reactive. In other words, you could say that we train ourselves in self-regulation, and research supports the idea that mindfulness practice enhances our capacity for it. This capacity for self-regulation is crucial not only for mental health and well-being, but also for school performance.

KB: A large body of research (i.e., here and here) supports the notion that mindfulness meditation is associated with structural changes in the brain as well. What sorts of changes are seen and why are these changes important?

BH: In a study that we conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital, we found that gray matter density increased in several regions of the brain, including the hippocampus, following participation in the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. The hippocampus is relevant for memory and learning as well as in the regulation of emotions, and it is known that while high stress levels can damage the neurons in the hippocampus, this damage is reversible. New tissue can become generated when stress levels are reduced and when we learn something new.

We also found in a related study that people significantly reduced their perceived stress levels following the MBSR course, (a typical finding that has been shown in many studies). So we wondered which changes in the brain would correspond to these improved stress levels. We found that the more participants’ stress levels decreased, the greater the decrease in gray matter density in the right amygdala. The amygdala plays an important role in reacting to fearful or stressful situations, and amygdala hyperactivity is seen in many pathological conditions. What we are still trying to figure out is whether the changes we have found here (in this case, decrease in gray matter) might help how we respond to stressful situations.

KB: Research also shows that mindfulness meditation is associated with functional changes/changes in brain connectivity across regions. What are some of these regions and why might they be important in students’ learning (both cognitive and noncognitive, aka social-emotional)?

BH: Neuroscience research has begun to reveal what happens in the brain when people practice mindfulness. While research is still only at its beginning and different studies have reported different findings, some studies have reported enhanced activation in brain regions that help with the regulation of attention and executive functioning, e.g., the anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. These areas help us to stay focused on a task that we perform and to disregard distractions/solve conflicts.

Other studies have investigated the impact of mindfulness training on emotional processing. These studies typically show emotional images or sentences to participants and ask them to encounter these situations with mindfulness. Several of such studies have reported decreased amygdala activation in response to emotional stimuli. In one such study that we conducted with anxiety patients, we found that mindfulness training (eight weeks of MBSR) helped reduce their anxiety levels, along with increases in the functional connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. This supports the idea that mindfulness might improve the capacity for emotional self-regulation.

KB: We work in some of the most high-needs schools in New York City. Students in these schools face a number of stressors in their homes and communities. What does the research tell us about mindfulness meditation and stress?

BH: Stress and stress hormones target the brain in multiple ways. When stress levels are moderate and occur only for a short period of time, these processes in the brain are useful and help us to respond to the stress adequately. However, when stress becomes excessive, it can lead to damages in the brain. While research in this area is still ongoing, it is relatively well established that mindfulness leads to self-reported enhancements in well-being and reductions in stress levels in vulnerable as well as generally healthy populations, which correspond to both structural and functional changes in the brain. Together, these findings suggest that mindfulness meditation might be a good potential intervention and prevention strategy.

Note: For those interested in learning much more about this topic area, Dr Hölzel referred to all of the following research studies in the Q&A:


  1. Bishop SR, Lau M, Shapiro S, Carlson LE, Anderson ND, Carmody J, et al. Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clin Psychol Sci Pract. 2004;11:230–41. 

  2. Kabat-Zinn J. Full Catastrophe Living. New York: Delta Publishing; 1990. 

  3. Tang Y-Y, Hölzel BK, Posner MI. The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nat Rev Neurosci [Internet]. 2015 Mar 18 [cited 2015 Mar 20];(March). Available from: http://www.nature.com/doifinder/10.1038/nrn3916

  4. Ortner CNM, Kilner SJ, Zelazo PD. Mindfulness meditation and reduced emotional interference on a cognitive task. Motiv Emot. 2007;31(4):271–83. 

  5. Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, Congleton C, Yerramsetti SM, Gard T, et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res [Internet]. 2010/11/13 ed. 191(1):36–43. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&dopt=Citation&list_uids=21071182

  6. Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Evans KC, Hoge EA, Dusek JA, Morgan L, et al. Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci [Internet]. 2010 Mar [cited 2012 Oct 29];5(1):11–7. Available from: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=2840837&tool=pmcentrez&rendertype=abstract

  7. Fox KCR, Dixon ML, Nijeboer S, Girn M, Floman JL, Lifshitz M, et al. Functional neuroanatomy of meditation: A review and meta-analysis of 78 functional neuroimaging investigations. Neurosci Biobehav Rev [Internet]. Elsevier Ltd; 2016; Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763415302244

  8. Hölzel BK, Hoge EA, Greve DN, Gard T, Creswell JD, Brown KW, et al. Neural mechanisms of symptom improvements in generalized anxiety disorder following mindfulness training. NeuroImage Clin [Internet]. 2013 Jan;2:448–58. Available from: http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S2213158213000326

  9. Khoury B, Sharma M, Rush SE, Fournier C. Mindfulness-based stress reduction for healthy individuals: A meta-analysis. J Psychosom Res [Internet]. Elsevier Inc.; 2015;78(6):519–28. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2015.03.009

  10. Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EMS, Gould NF, Rowland-Seymour A, Sharma R, et al. Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med [Internet]. 2014 Mar [cited 2014 Jul 19];174(3):357–68. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24395196 




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