Published on January 13th 2024

The science of mindfulness: 5 ways it can benefit your brain


Written by

The science of mindfulness: 5 ways it can benefit your brain



The science of mindfulness: 5 ways it can benefit your brain

Table of Contents


. Mindfulness and Meditation: Are they the same thing ?


. All you need to know about mindfulness meditation (MM) in less than a minute!


. Let’s discuss the benefits of mindfulness meditation (MM) for your brain health.


. 1) Combats sleep disorders


. 2) Relieves migraines


. 3) Helps regulate emotions


. 4) Cuts down on rumination


. 5) Initiates behavior change


. Conclusion

What is mindfulness? In simple words, it is paying attention to the present—that can be your surroundings, your breath, body movements, thoughts, and emotions.

The science of mindfulness: 5 ways it can benefit your brain

Imagine a gorge. There are two steep, rocky hills and a river cutting through them. Now, place yourself on one of the hills and take a look at the river below. Does it not remind you of the fluid thoughts ever-running in your conscious mind ?

When you practice mindfulness, you distinctly separate yourself from the flow of thoughts and just observe their motion from a safe distance. No, you can’t be judgmental and draw hasty conclusions. But yes, you can be curious and welcome all that you see with an open, accepting mind and a warm heart.

In the words of Jon Kabat Zinn, the architect of the first mindful-based intervention (or MBI), known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), developed in 1977, here is an answer to why people keep anxiously running from their present.

“The conditions are never actually right for being in the present, which is why you don’t want to be there so much... It really is never satisfactory, (so) we drive ourselves insane. Really trying to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, as opposed to sort of understanding that we are not the Titanic to begin with.”

People are so caught up either planning for their future or struggling with the regrets of the past that they forget the most important place to be—their PRESENT!!

On average, 19% of US adults suffer from anxiety disorders. A study even claims that nearly 1 in every 3 US adults may have experienced any type of anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. The state of constantly worrying is one of the fundamental components of anxiety.

Mindfulness and Meditation: Are they the same thing ?

Both certainly have many elements in common, but there is a slight difference between the two.

Meditation is a practice where you focus your attention on a particular object or participate in an activity to primarily eliminate the thoughts cluttering your mind and attain peace.

But in Mindfulness Meditation (MM), you aren't obligated to push away your thoughts and emotions, but rather pass by them without being harsh on yourself.

Besides, mindfulness can also be a non-meditative state, where you actively set away mental distractions to commit your attention to the here and now, as emphasized by Ellen Jane Langer, an American professor of psychology at Harvard University.

Some of her works include “Mindfulness” (1989), “The Power of Mindful Learning” (1997), “The Mindful Body: Thinking Our Way To Chronic Health” (2023), etc.

All you need to know about mindfulness meditation (MM) in less than a minute!

  • MBIs teach the elemental basis of MM through a sequence of activities where attention is used as a mental faculty. They consist of:

    • Focused Attention (directing and maintaining attention on an object, not engaging with distractors such as mind wandering, and repiloting attention back to the object in case it’s lost)

    • In open monitoring, there is no need to focus methodically. It harvests metacognitive monitoring, in which an individual becomes aware of one’s thought processes and the patterns behind them. But practicing with a relaxed, non-reactive mindset is a must.

  • MBIs also use emotion-inducing meditations to nurture certain emotions like love, kindness, compassion, etc.

  • MM may produce the relaxation Response in the body is characterized by voluntariness (relying on the power of will), wakefulness, low consumption of metabolic energy, and a **parasympathetic state of dominance. But remember, relaxation is not a necessary objective.

[**Parasympathetic relates to the Parasympathetic Nervous System, a division of the Autonomic Nervous System. It controls involuntary body functions, such as slowing heart rate, producing tears, contracting bladder, etc. It also tends to oppose the body’s fight or flight response and hence helps to calm the body and mind.

  • MM is about establishing awareness and equanimity (an even-minded mental state or **dispositional tendency) toward all experiences, objects, complex thoughts, intense emotions, and unpleasant sensations, irrespective of their affective valence (i.e., their ability to cheer, depress, or not affect you in any way).

[**Dispositional tendency is the natural or specific emotional and mental outlook or mood of an individual.]

  • Several scientific models exist that give a lowdown on the potential psychological and neurobiological mechanisms—the comprehensive study of which enables us to understand the benefits of practicing mindfulness more efficiently.

Let’s discuss the benefits of mindfulness meditation (MM) for your brain health.

1) Combats sleep disorders

About 20% of Americans experience sleep disorders. Sleep disturbances may include restlessness, difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping excessively. These tend to cause daytime drowsiness that can lead to dangerous motor vehicle accidents or work injuries.

Sleep disorders and poor chronic sleep may also worsen generalized anxiety, increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases, and cause metabolic dysfunctions.

Mindfulness meditation employs metacognitive monitoring, and we talked about this earlier too. This lets you create awareness of the “present” and disrupt repetitive cycles of worry.

For example, if you have insomnia, you may suffer from chronic sleep disturbances that can make you imagine that your bed is your biggest enemy because it is inhibiting your sleep.

This triggers worry, and you drag along poorly adapted coping behaviors such as staying in bed even when you are not able to sleep.

The science of mindfulness: 5 ways it can benefit your brain

Practicing mindfulness meditation helps you notice body sensations (jittery feelings) and hyperarousal (that can be irritability, paranoia, lack of concentration, increased heart rate, or heightened anxiety). And doing so wouldn’t aggravate your inability to sleep or make you feel more frustrated.

What’s happening here? You’re essentially detaching yourself from the thoughts that pester you with unfavorable outcomes if you fail to fall asleep.

"I've got work tomorrow, and it’s already 1a.m. I need to sleep.” “Oh, I am supposed to buy groceries tomorrow.” Or, “I have to wake up early in the morning to drop kids off at school. But I can’t bring myself to sleep now!!”

A small number of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) have demonstrated efficacy in treating sleep disturbances to varied extents; few have used randomized controlled trial designs.

Still, there is a call for more research to clearly understand the benefits of MBIs when it comes to improving sleep quality and duration.

2) Relieves migraines

If we told you that migraine is one of the leading causes of disability, would you believe us?

Not only is it highly widespread, but it also has a negative impact on an individual’s social and professional life during his or her peak years of productivity.

According to the International Classification of Headache Disorders (ICHD), it is a complex neurobiological condition that manifests as attacks of head pain, sensitivity to light and noise, and nausea and/or vomiting.

The science of mindfulness: 5 ways it can benefit your brain

Stress is one of the most commonly known triggers for a migraine attack. Treatments that target the reduction of stress have been valuable to people with migraines.

In the world of headaches, behavioral treatment options reduce the frequency of headache attacks and the associated disability; these options have a long history of support from research.

More than 2 million adults in the US practice mindfulness meditation to effectively handle stress.

3) Helps regulate emotions

Avoiding distressing situations or suppressing unpleasant thoughts is only adding to the trouble! Mindfulness-based programs (MBPs) enhance the ability to fix awareness in a difficult situation, thereby gently pushing you into an environment where you get exposed to negative emotional reactions.

A change in experiential perspective interestingly aids in the willingness to "bite the bullet" or "face one's demons."

To be simple, you decenter—you step outside your immediate subjective experience and imbibe a more randomly objective approach.

Rejecting the urge to “name and shame" or “vividly label” all parts of that situation or thought, you decide to have more of a cursory yet thorough observation.

Then, of course, arrives meta-cognitive monitoring, which is again delving deep into the mental processes and patterns with composure and compassion.

The science of mindfulness: 5 ways it can benefit your brain

With practice, it has been found that repeated instances of acceptance and awareness of the emotional responses and body movements can lead to a decrease in volatile emotional reactivity; in some cases, one even gains dominant control over it.

4) Cuts down on rumination

Ruminating is one of the many responses to distress in which an individual repetitively and passively focuses on the symptoms of distress and all possible causes and consequences of those symptoms.

The science of mindfulness: 5 ways it can benefit your brain

Mostly associated with conditions like depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bulimia, substance abuse, self-injurious and aggressive behaviors, and impaired problem solving.

One **meta-analysis stated that a reduction in rumination partially set the precedent for improved psychological functioning.

[**Meta-Analysis is a process that uses statistics to review multiple studies with the aim of identifying common results and trends.]

Another recent meta-analysis finds mindfulness-based medical programs (MBPs) bring down negative, self-related rumination—with a strong effect among six studies with inactive control groups and potential for benefit among two studies with active controls. They also mitigate depressive symptoms and self-criticism.

Moreover, mindfulness meditation prevents devastating self-attributions (that are repetitive in nature) and can steer people into brief slip-ups of unhealthy behavior after a period of sustained abstinence.

Self-attributions refer to persistently trying to comprehend the results and effects of one's actions to the point where it drives one insane and numb. They could lead an individual into a full-blown relapse, in a process called the Abstinence Violation Effect.

A meta-analysis of brain imaging studies reports a strong association between the DMN core regions of the brain and rumination.

Now, the DMN (or Default Mode Network) regions, particularly the **dmPFC, plays an important role in morality judgements, decision-making, fear and anxiety, information processing, empathy, sense of self, social impressions, etc.

[**The dorsomedial (dm) and the prefrontal cortex (PFC).]

5) Initiates behavior change

Mindfulness meditation reiterates attentional control as one of its core types. The willful orienting of attention to breath, body sensations, etc., modifying and maintaining it, remaining vigilant of some unexpected stimuli (mind wanderings), and conflict monitoring of internal thoughts, feelings, and responses—is how mindfulness meditation works.

It lets you recognise the consequences of ongoing unhealthy behavior and the affective precursors of avoidance or appetitive behavior. Eventually, you will walk the path of adaptive behavior change!

People facing issues, including substance abuse, bipolar disorder, depression, age-related cognitive decline, or mild cognitive impairment, may experience dysfunction-specific improvement, whereas healthy patients may be sensitive to ceiling effects.


For novices, initiating might be challenging, but try to avoid being too critical of oneself. Consider mindfulness in this manner: when the bee stings, the mind engages in thinking, as it is its natural tendency. Avoid being angry with your mind for engaging in thoughts.

Our minds may naturally wander while we practice mindfulness, but we will see an improvement if we constantly return to our breath and the present moment.

With increased practice of mindfulness, one gains mastery over their mind, preventing it from exercising influence over them.

Reviewed by

Dr. Sangeeta Hatila Cropped.jpg

Dr. Sangeeta Hatila

Neuro Psychiatrist