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Science Series: Mindfulness and Brain Plasticity


The Numinus blog is pleased to introduce a new series: The Science of Mindfulness. Starting this summer, we’ll be periodically posting reviews of some of the most compelling scientific research on mindfulness. We believe our readers will be as fascinated as we are by the amazing work being conducted at this new frontier of neuroscience.

Alterations in Brain and Immune Functioning Produced by Mindfulness Meditation

Since Jon Kabat-Zinn secularized and recontextualized mindfulness in the 1970s, making meaningful and accessible for Western medicine and psychology, research has shown that mindfulness practice can–among other things–decrease stress, decrease chronic pain, and decrease depression and anxiety. But how does it work?

Neuroscience studies of mindfulness and meditation are designed precisely to answer that question.

In one of the most fascinating studies, neuroscientist Richard Davidson teamed up with Kabat-Zinn to explore the effect of mindfulness meditation on the brain and the immune system. From their own experience with meditation, Kabat-Zinn and Davidson believed that mindfulness has the potential to make people calmer, happier, and more resilien,. but there was limited research supporting this view. So they conducted a rigorous study investigating whether or not an 8-week meditation program would change areas on the left side of the brain that are related to positive emotions and resilience. Since stress compromises immunity and mindfulness is supposed to decrease stress, they also wanted to know if meditation could boost the immune system.

The researchers recruited 48 employees from a biotech company and split them into two groups: a group that received Kabat-Zinn’s 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program, and a control group. To test the brain theory, participants’ brain activity was measured using electroencephalogram (EEG) before and after the MBSR program, as well as four months later. To test the immune system theory, the researchers gave participants the flu vaccine and measured the number of antibodies their immune systems produced. All of the participants also completed questionnaires measuring anxiety and mood before and after the mindfulness training.

What happened?

The results of this study were the first evidence that meditation can literally change the brain. Before the 8-week meditation program, there no differences between the MBSR group and the control group in brain activation or on the mood and anxiety questionnaires. After the 8-week program, EEG testing showed that the MBSR group’s left-sided brain activation had significantly increased! Not only that, activation in the positive emotions and resilience areas of the brain was greater in the MBSR group than in the control group–a difference that wasn’t present 8 weeks earlier. The questionnaire scores gave the same results: the MBSR group’s negative emotions decreased over the course of the 8 weeks, and they were significantly less anxious than the control group.

What about immune system functioning?

The MBSR group’s immune systems responded more effectively and efficiently to the flu virus, producing significantly more antibodies, more quickly than the control group.

So what does all this mean?

The take-home messages from this study are that brain and immune system functioning are plastic, and that a relatively brief–8-week!–mindfulness meditation program can have a reliable positive effect on both. This is great news for meditation, which still suffers from a reputation as an eccentric, mystical, or new-age practice. Concrete neuroscience findings like these will have the power to change minds about the nature of meditation, removing the ‘new-age’ stigma and reconceptualizing mindfulness as a powerful and cost-effective tool for health and happiness.

Reference: Davidson, Kabat-Zinn, Schumacher, Rosenkranz, Muller, Santorelli, Urbanoski, Harrington, Bonus & Sheridan (2003) Alterations in Brain and Immune Functioning Produced by Mindfulness Meditation (Davidson et al., 2003) Psychosomatic Medicine; 65(4): 564-70.


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