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Meditation can be defined as a form of mental training that aims to improve an individual’s core psychological capacities, such as attentional and emotional self-regulation. Meditation uses a technique – such as mindfulness, or focusing the mind on an object, thought or activity – to train attention and awareness, and achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state.
Meditation encompasses a family of complex practices that include mindfulness meditation, breath awareness meditation, mantra meditation, and certain movement meditations such as yoga, taijichuan, and styles of qigong. Of these practices, mindfulness meditation, often described as nonjudgmental attention to present-moment experiences, has received most attention in neuroscience research over the past four decades.
Although meditation research is still in its infancy, several studies have investigated changes in brain activation (at rest and during specific tasks) that are associated with the practice of, or that follow, training in mindfulness meditation. These studies have reported changes in multiple aspects of mental function in beginner and advanced meditators, healthy individuals and patient populations. The benefits of utilizing meditation as a therapeutic measure in the healthcare setting have been discussed and meditation-based interventions are increasingly being implemented as adjunct or complementary to classical medical or psychological approaches.
Current neurophysiological and imaging research findings have identified neural changes in association with meditation and provide a potentially promising avenue for future research. The following selected articles describe some of the more current research of various forms of meditation.
Allen, Micah, Martin Dietz, Karina S. Blair, Martijn van Beek, Geraint Rees, Peter Vestergaard-Poulsen, Antoine Lutz, and Andreas Roepstorff. Cognitive-affective neural plasticity following active-controlled mindfulness intervention. Journal of Neuroscience 32, no. 44 (2012): 15601-15610.
Baer, Ruth A. Mindfulness training as a clinical intervention: A conceptual and empirical review. Clinical psychology: Science and practice 10, no. 2 (2003): 125-143.
Banquet, Jean-Paul. Spectral analysis of the EEG in meditation. Electroencephalography and clinical neurophysiology 35, no. 2 (1973): 143-151.
Bowen, Sarah, Katie Witkiewitz, Seema L. Clifasefi, Joel Grow, Neharika Chawla, Sharon H. Hsu, Haley A. Carroll et al. Relative efficacy of mindfulness-based relapse prevention, standard relapse prevention, and treatment as usual for substance use disorders: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA psychiatry 71, no. 5 (2014): 547-556.
Brefczynski-Lewis, Julie A., Antoine Lutz, Hillary S. Schaefer, Daniel B. Levinson, and Richard J. Davidson. Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, no. 27 (2007): 11483-11488.
Cahn, B. Rael, and John Polich. Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies. Psychological bulletin 132, no. 2 (2006): 180.
Carter, Olivia L., D. E. Presti, C. Callistemon, Y. Ungerer, Guang B. Liu, and John D. Pettigrew. Meditation alters perceptual rivalry in Tibetan Buddhist monks. Current Biology 15, no. 11 (2005): R412-R413.
Chan, Davina, and Marjorie Woollacott. Effects of level of meditation experience on attentional focus: is the efficiency of executive or orientation networks improved? The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 13, no. 6 (2007): 651-658.
Chung, Sun-Yong, Jin-Woo Seo, Jong-Woo Kim, and Wei-Wan Hwang. The effects of breath meditation with neurofeedback on memory and concentration of healthy adult volunteers. Journal of Oriental Neuropsychiatry 19, no. 2 (2008): 15-39.
Creswell, J. David, Laura E. Pacilio, Emily K. Lindsay, and Kirk Warren Brown. Brief mindfulness meditation training alters psychological and neuroendocrine responses to social evaluative stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology 44 (2014): 1-12.
Davidson, Richard J., Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jessica Schumacher, Melissa Rosenkranz, Daniel Muller, Saki F. Santorelli, Ferris Urbanowski, Anne Harrington, Katherine Bonus, and John F. Sheridan. Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic medicine 65, no. 4 (2003): 564-570.
Ding, Xiaoqian, Yi-Yuan Tang, Rongxiang Tang, and Michael I. Posner. Improving creativity performance by short-term meditation. Behavioral and Brain Functions 10, no. 1 (2014): 9.
Ding, Xiaoqian, Yi-Yuan Tang, Yuqin Deng, Rongxiang Tang, and Michael I. Posner. Mood and personality predict improvement in creativity due to meditation training. Learning and Individual Differences 37 (2015): 217-221.
Ditto, Blaine, Marie Eclache, and Natalie Goldman. Short-term autonomic and cardiovascular effects of mindfulness body scan meditation. Annals of Behavioral Medicine 32, no. 3 (2006): 227-234.
Doll, Anselm, Britta K. Hölzel, Satja Mulej Bratec, Christine C. Boucard, Xiyao Xie, Afra M. Wohlschläger, and Christian Sorg. Mindful attention to breath regulates emotions via increased amygdala-prefrontal cortex connectivity. Neuroimage 134 (2016): 305-313.
Edenfield, Teresa M., and Sy Atezaz Saeed. An update on mindfulness meditation as a self-help treatment for anxiety and depression. Psychology research and behavior management 5 (2012): 131.
Elder, Charles, Sanford Nidich, Francis Moriarty, and Randi Nidich. Effect of transcendental meditation on employee stress, depression, and burnout: a randomized controlled study. The Permanente Journal 18, no. 1 (2014): 19.
Farb, Norman AS, Zindel V. Segal, and Adam K. Anderson. Mindfulness meditation training alters cortical representations of interoceptive attention. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience 8, no. 1 (2012): 15-26.
Farrow, John T., and Russell J. Hebert. Breath suspension during the transcendental meditation technique.
Psychosomatic medicine 44, no. 2 (1982): 133-153.
Fayed, Nicolás, Yolanda Lopez del Hoyo, Eva Andres, Antoni Serrano-Blanco, Juan Bellón, Keyla Aguilar, Ausias Cebolla, and Javier Garcia-Campayo. Brain changes in long-term Zen meditators using proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy and diffusion tensor imaging: a controlled study. PLoS One 8, no. 3 (2013): e58476.
Fox, Kieran CR, Savannah Nijeboer, Matthew L. Dixon, James L. Floman, Melissa Ellamil, Samuel P. Rumak, Peter Sedlmeier, and Kalina Christoff. Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 43 (2014): 48-73.
Gard, Tim, Britta K. Hölzel, and Sara W. Lazar. The potential effects of meditation on age-related cognitive decline: a systematic review. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1307 (2014): 89.
Gard, Tim, Maxime Taquet, Rohan Dixit, Britta K. Hölzel, Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, Narayan Brach, David H. Salat, Bradford C. Dickerson, Jeremy R. Gray, and Sara W. Lazar. Fluid intelligence and brain functional organization in aging yoga and meditation practitioners. Frontiers in aging neuroscience 6 (2014): 76.
Goldin, Philippe R., and James J. Gross. Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Emotion 10, no. 1 (2010): 83.
Grant, Joshua A., Jérôme Courtemanche, Emma G. Duerden, Gary H. Duncan, and Pierre Rainville. Cortical thickness and pain sensitivity in Zen meditators. Emotion 10, no. 1 (2010): 43.
Hanssen, Imke, M. J. Huijbers, M. W. H. Lochmann-van Bennekom, E. J. Regeer, Anja Wilhelmina Margaretha Maria Stevens, S. M. A. A. Evers, M. Wensing, R. W. Kupka, and A. E. M. Speckens. Study protocol of a multicenter randomized controlled trial of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and treatment as usual in bipolar disorder. BMC psychiatry 19, no. 1 (2019): 130.
Hofmann, Stefan G., Alice T. Sawyer, Ashley A. Witt, and Diana Oh. The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 78, no. 2 (2010): 169.
Hoge, Elizabeth A., Eric Bui, Luana Marques, Christina A. Metcalf, Laura K. Morris, Donald J. Robinaugh, John J. Worthington, Mark H. Pollack, and Naomi M. Simon. Randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation for generalized anxiety disorder: effects on anxiety and stress reactivity. The Journal of clinical psychiatry 74, no. 8 (2013): 786.
Hölzel, Britta K., James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, Tim Gard, and Sara W. Lazar. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 191, no. 1 (2011): 36-43.
Hölzel, Britta K., Ulrich Ott, Hannes Hempel, Andrea Hackl, Katharina Wolf, Rudolf Stark, and Dieter Vaitl. Differential engagement of anterior cingulate and adjacent medial frontal cortex in adept meditators and non-meditators. Neuroscience letters 421, no. 1 (2007): 16-21.
Hölzel, Britta K., Elizabeth A. Hoge, Douglas N. Greve, Tim Gard, J. David Creswell, Kirk Warren Brown, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Carl Schwartz, Dieter Vaitl, and Sara W. Lazar. Neural mechanisms of symptom improvements in generalized anxiety disorder following mindfulness training. NeuroImage: Clinical 2 (2013): 448-458.
Hölzel, Britta K., Sara W. Lazar, Tim Gard, Zev Schuman-Olivier, David R. Vago, and Ulrich Ott. How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on psychological science 6, no. 6 (2011): 537-559.
Hutcherson, Cendri A., Emma M. Seppala, and James J. Gross. Loving-kindness meditation increases social connectedness. Emotion 8, no. 5 (2008): 720.
Ivanovski, Belinda, and Gin S. Malhi. The psychological and neurophysiological concomitants of mindfulness forms of meditation. Acta neuropsychiatrica 19, no. 2 (2007): 76-91.
Lazar, Sara W., Catherine E. Kerr, Rachel H. Wasserman, Jeremy R. Gray, Douglas N. Greve, Michael T. Treadway, Metta McGarvey et al. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport 16, no. 17 (2005): 1893.
Lazar, Sara W., George Bush, Randy L. Gollub, Gregory L. Fricchione, Gurucharan Khalsa, and Herbert Benson. Functional brain mapping of the relaxation response and meditation. Neuroreport 11, no. 7 (2000): 1581-1585.
Luders, Eileen, Arthur W. Toga, Natasha Lepore, and Christian Gaser. The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter. Neuroimage 45, no. 3 (2009): 672-678.
Luders, Eileen, Kristi Clark, Katherine L. Narr, and Arthur W. Toga. Enhanced brain connectivity in long-term meditation practitioners. Neuroimage 57, no. 4 (2011): 1308-1316.
Luders, Eileen, Florian Kurth, Emeran A. Mayer, Arthur W. Toga, Katherine L. Narr, and Christian Gaser. The unique brain anatomy of meditation practitioners: alterations in cortical gyrification. Frontiers in human neuroscience 6 (2012): 34.
Luders, Eileen, Owen R. Phillips, Kristi Clark, Florian Kurth, Arthur W. Toga, and Katherine L. Narr. Bridging the hemispheres in meditation: thicker callosal regions and enhanced fractional anisotropy (FA) in long-term practitioners. Neuroimage 61, no. 1 (2012): 181-187.
Luders, Eileen, Paul M. Thompson, Florian Kurth, Jui‐Yang Hong, Owen R. Phillips, Yalin Wang, Boris A. Gutman, Yi‐Yu Chou, Katherine L. Narr, and Arthur W. Toga. Global and regional alterations of hippocampal anatomy in long‐term meditation practitioners. Human brain mapping 34, no. 12 (2013): 3369-3375.
Luders, Eileen, Florian Kurth, Arthur W. Toga, Katherine L. Narr, and Christian Gaser. Meditation effects within the hippocampal complex revealed by voxel-based morphometry and cytoarchitectonic probabilistic mapping. Frontiers in Psychology 4 (2013): 398.
Luders, Eileen. Exploring age‐related brain degeneration in meditation practitioners. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1307, no. 1 (2014): 82-88.
Lutz, Antoine, John D. Dunne, and Richard J. Davidson. Meditation and the neuroscience of consciousness.
Cambridge handbook of consciousness (2007): 499-555.
Lutz, Antoine, Heleen A. Slagter, John D. Dunne, and Richard J. Davidson. Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in cognitive sciences 12, no. 4 (2008): 163-169.
Manna, Antonietta, Antonino Raffone, Mauro Gianni Perrucci, Davide Nardo, Antonio Ferretti, Armando Tartaro, Alessandro Londei, Cosimo Del Gratta, Marta Olivetti Belardinelli, and Gian Luca Romani. Neural correlates of focused attention and cognitive monitoring in meditation. Brain research bulletin 82, no. 1-2 (2010): 46-56.
MacCoon, Donal G., Zac E. Imel, Melissa A. Rosenkranz, Jenna G. Sheftel, Helen Y. Weng, Jude C. Sullivan, Katherine A. Bonus et al. The validation of an active control intervention for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Behaviour research and therapy 50, no. 1 (2012): 3-12.
MacLean, Katherine A., Emilio Ferrer, Stephen R. Aichele, David A. Bridwell, Anthony P. Zanesco, Tonya L. Jacobs, Brandon G. King et al. Intensive meditation training improves perceptual discrimination and sustained attention. Psychological science 21, no. 6 (2010): 829-839.
Oman, Doug, Shauna L. Shapiro, Carl E. Thoresen, Thomas G. Plante, and Tim Flinders. Meditation lowers stress and supports forgiveness among college students: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of american college health 56, no. 5 (2008): 569-578.
Ospina, M. (2007). Meditation practices for health state of the research. DIANE Publishing. Evid. Rep. Technol. Assess. (Full Rep.) 155, 1–263 (2007).
Pagnoni, Giuseppe, and Milos Cekic. Age effects on gray matter volume and attentional performance in Zen meditation. Neurobiology of aging 28, no. 10 (2007): 1623-1627.
Passarotti, Alessandra M., John A. Sweeney, and Mani N. Pavuluri. Emotion processing influences working memory circuits in pediatric bipolar disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 49, no. 10 (2010): 1064-1080.
Ramel, Wiveka, Philippe R. Goldin, Paula E. Carmona, and John R. McQuaid. The effects of mindfulness meditation on cognitive processes and affect in patients with past depression. Cognitive therapy and research 28, no. 4 (2004): 433-455.
Robins, Clive J., Shian‐Ling Keng, Andrew G. Ekblad, and Jeffrey G. Brantley. Effects of mindfulness‐based stress reduction on emotional experience and expression: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of clinical psychology 68, no. 1 (2012): 117-131.
Rosenkranz, Melissa A., Richard J. Davidson, Donal G. MacCoon, John F. Sheridan, Ned H. Kalin, and Antoine Lutz. A comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic inflammation. Brain, behavior, and immunity 27 (2013): 174-184.
Schoenberg, Poppy LA, Sevket Hepark, Cornelis C. Kan, Henk P. Barendregt, Jan K. Buitelaar, and Anne EM Speckens. Effects of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy on neurophysiological correlates of performance monitoring in adult attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Clinical Neurophysiology 125, no. 7 (2014): 1407-1416.
Schreiner, Istvan, and James P. Malcolm. The benefits of mindfulness meditation: Changes in emotional states of depression, anxiety, and stress. Behaviour Change 25, no. 3 (2008): 156-168.
Shapiro, Shauna L., Gary ER Schwartz, and Craig Santerre. Meditation and positive psychology. Handbook of positive psychology 2 (2002): 632-645.
Srivastava, Malini, Uddip Talukdar, and Vivek Lahan. Meditation for the management of adjustment disorder anxiety and depression. Complementary therapies in clinical practice 17, no. 4 (2011): 241-245.
Takahashi, Tetsuya, Tetsuhito Murata, Toshihiko Hamada, Masao Omori, Hirotaka Kosaka, Mitsuru Kikuchi, Haruyoshi Yoshida, and Yuji Wada. Changes in EEG and autonomic nervous activity during meditation and their association with personality traits. International Journal of Psychophysiology 55, no. 2 (2005): 199-207.
Tang, Yi-Yuan, Britta K. Hölzel, and Michael I. Posner. The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 16, no. 4 (2015): 213-225.
Tang, Yi-Yuan, Rongxiang Tang, and Michael I. Posner. Brief meditation training induces smoking reduction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110, no. 34 (2013): 13971-13975.
Tang, Y. Y. et al. Short-term meditation induces white matter changes in the anterior cingulate. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 15649–15652 (2010). The first longitudinal study to document that brief mindfulness training induces white-matter changes.
Tang, Yi-Yuan, Yinghua Ma, Yaxin Fan, Hongbo Feng, Junhong Wang, Shigang Feng, Qilin Lu et al. Central and autonomic nervous system interaction is altered by short-term meditation. Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences 106, no. 22 (2009): 8865-8870.
Tang, Yi‐Yuan, Lizhu Yang, Leslie D. Leve, and Gordon T. Harold. Improving executive function and its neurobiological mechanisms through a mindfulness‐based intervention: Advances within the field of developmental neuroscience. Child development perspectives 6, no. 4 (2012): 361-366.
Tang, Yi-Yuan, Yinghua Ma, Junhong Wang, Yaxin Fan, Shigang Feng, Qilin Lu, Qingbao Yu et al. Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, no. 43 (2007): 17152-17156.
Tang, Yi-Yuan, Qilin Lu, Ming Fan, Yihong Yang, and Michael I. Posner. Mechanisms of white matter changes induced by meditation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, no. 26 (2012): 10570-10574.
Tang, Yi-Yuan, Mary K. Rothbart, and Michael I. Posner. Neural correlates of establishing, maintaining, and switching brain states. Trends in cognitive sciences 16, no. 6 (2012): 330-337.
Vestergaard-Poulsen, Peter, Martijn van Beek, Joshua Skewes, Carsten R. Bjarkam, Michael Stubberup, Jes Bertelsen, and Andreas Roepstorff. Long-term meditation is associated with increased gray matter density in the brain stem.
Neuroreport 20, no. 2 (2009): 170-174.
Wells, Rebecca Erwin, Gloria Y. Yeh, Catherine E. Kerr, Jennifer Wolkin, Roger B. Davis, Ying Tan, Rosa Spaeth et al. Meditation's impact on default mode network and hippocampus in mild cognitive impairment: a pilot study. Neuroscience letters 556 (2013): 15-19.
Wenk-Sormaz, Heidi. Meditation can reduce habitual responding. Alternative therapies in health and medicine 11, no. 2 (2005): 42-59.
Zeidan, Fadel, Susan K. Johnson, Bruce J. Diamond, Zhanna David, and Paula Goolkasian. Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and cognition 19, no. 2 (2010): 597-605.
Zeidan, Fadel, Katherine T. Martucci, Robert A. Kraft, Nakia S. Gordon, John G. McHaffie, and Robert C. Coghill. Brain mechanisms supporting the modulation of pain by mindfulness meditation. Journal of Neuroscience 31, no. 14 (2011): 5540-5548.
Zeidan, Fadel, Katherine T. Martucci, Robert A. Kraft, John G. McHaffie, and Robert C. Coghill. Neural correlates of mindfulness meditation-related anxiety relief. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience 9, no. 6 (2013): 751-759.