This Is Your Brain on Mindfulness Training

By Shilo Rea, Carnegie Mellon University
February 28, 2015 Updated: August 1, 2015

Studies have shown that mindfulness training can boost a range of mental and physical health problems, but how it works hasn’t been clear.

Now, researchers have developed a model suggesting that mindfulness influences health via stress reduction pathways. The work, published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, describes the biological pathways linking mindfulness training with reduced stress and stress-related disease outcomes.

“If mindfulness training is improving people’s health, how does it get under the skin to affect all kinds of outcomes?” asks J. David Creswell, associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. “We offer one of the first evidence-based biological accounts of mindfulness training, stress reduction, and health.”

Creswell and graduate student Emily K. Lindsay highlight a body of work that depicts the biological mechanisms of mindfulness training’s stress reduction effects.

When an individual experiences stress, activity in the prefrontal cortex (responsible for conscious thinking and planning) decreases, while activity in the amygdala, hypothalamus, and anterior cingulate cortex (regions that quickly activate the body’s stress response) increases.

Studies have suggested that mindfulness reverses these patterns during stress; it increases prefrontal activity, which can regulate and turn down the biological stress response.

Excessive activation of the biological stress response increases the risk of diseases impacted by stress, such as depression and heart disease. By reducing individuals’ experiences of stress, mindfulness may help regulate the physical stress response and ultimately reduce the risk and severity of stress-related diseases.

Creswell believes that by understanding how mindfulness training affects different disorders, researchers will be able to develop better interventions, know when certain treatments will work most effectively, and identify people likely to benefit from mindfulness training.

From Carnegie Mellon University via