6 Surprising Ways Mindfulness Meditation Can Improve Your Brain

Working mindfulness into your daily routine can mean sitting and breathing, but it can also manifest as noticing small changes in familiar environments. . (Photo: Gajus/Shutterstock)

You've heard how good mindfulness is for you, but did you know it helps you grow new brain cells, changes how your brain functions and even resets your perception of pain?

Various studies have led researchers to draw these conclusions, adding to the growing pile of evidence about why mindfulness meditation works so well for so many people in so many different ways. It starts with neuroscientists' increasing understanding that the brain is plastic — which means that, unlike your thigh bone, which grows to a certain size and stays that way for the rest of your life, your brain changes as you age.

That means it's possible to literally change how you think, even in middle or old age. And changing how you think can meaningfully change the way you perceive stress, pain, negative emotions, and even your perspective on life, as this TEDTalk video explains.

This kind of research is now possible due to the increasing availability of different types of brain scans. It's now feasible for researchers to do brain scans before and after mindfulness meditation sessions. And from those scans they can see exactly how and in what regions a subject's brain can change. If they see similar change patterns in a variety of test subjects (older, younger, male, female) researchers then can find a link between those changes and the practice of mindfulness.

Below are a few of the most interesting studies about mindfulness and what they've found.

Mindfulness can reduce pain

In a before-and-after look at the brains of subjects who had regularly meditated for just four days, researchers behind this study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that the perception of pain was dramatically reduced: How much? Mindfulness meditation "... significantly reduced pain unpleasantness by 57% and pain intensity ratings by 40% when compared to rest." This was, according to researchers, due to increased activity in areas of the brain involved with regulating the understanding of pain signals, the anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula. In addition to feeling less overall pain, the subjects also said they felt less intense "pain unpleasantness." That's because the orbitofrontal cortex was activated. This part of the brain is understood to frame (and reframe) the "contextual evaluation of sensory events" — so pain may still have been present, but it didn't feel as painful.

It can help you grow more grey matter

biofeedback for depression - brain scan
The left hippocampus got larger in the subjects who practiced mindfulness for eight weeks. (Photo: Life science/Shutterstock)

A Harvard Medical School study published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging that looked at the brains of 17 study participants before and after an eight-week mindfulness program found that their brains grew in certain places by doing mindfulness meditation, which sounds amazing: "Analyses ... confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR [mindfulness meditation] group compared to the controls." The study authors go on in detail: "The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking."

It can help you build more brain connections

A study from UCLA published in NeuroImage looked specifically at female subjects, and measured the brains (via fcMRI) of two groups — those who did mindfulness meditation for eight weeks and those who didn't. They found that among the meditators, there were better connections between the parts of the brains linked with sight and sound, as well as greater focus in those areas. What does that mean? "These findings suggest that 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation training alters intrinsic functional connectivity in ways that may reflect a more consistent attentional focus, enhanced sensory processing, and reflective awareness of sensory experience."

It can improve verbal learning

verbal learning and mindfulness meditation benefits
Mindfulness can potentially make it easier to learn new verbal information and then be able to remember it later. (Photo: hydra viridis/Shutterstock)

As in many of these experiments, this one shows the surprising payoff of a truly short-term commitment. After listening to a 10-minute mindfulness audio tape, participants boosted their verbal learning ability.

In a study published in the journal Memory & Cognition, researchers discovered that participants who listened to a mindfulness audio exercise were better at recalling newly learned words, but it wasn't clear how long the effects would last. Still, not bad for 10 minutes!

"We reasoned that, since mindfulness often works to quiet down thoughts which may occupy phonological loop resources, then it should be able to improve the learning of new verbal information, likely by allowing information to be better absorbed through the encoding process of memory," study author Adam Lueke, an assistant teaching professor at Ball State University, told PsyPost.

It can curb your procrastination habit

illustration of a doubtful man considering if doing things now or never or later
Procrastination is simply the failure to self-regulate, and mindfulness can help with that. (Photo: faithie/Shutterstock)

While this result may not seem surprising based on what you've already read, this study published in Personality and Individual Differences goes a step further, showing an inverse relationship between mindfulness and procrastination, researchers from Education University of Hong Kong found.

By looking at the habits of 339 Chinese college students, researchers found that when mindfulness was high, procrastination levels dropped, and vice versa. The study wasn't perfect — students took questionnaires at four specific times during a six-month period — but the pattern was evident throughout. And looking at other work on the connection, it makes sense. Some tasks provoke a negative emotional reaction, but as Timothy A Pychyl writes in Psychology Today, the answer is simply to bolster our emotional regulation — and that relies on mindfulness.

It can help you control your emotional response

In fact, emotional regulation is at the heart of several issues. A study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience by researchers at the University of Zurich involved giving a short mindfulness session to 24 people while 22 others (the controls) didn't participate. Researchers found that those who had been given the mindfulness session were less reactive when shown negative imagery. Through functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRIs, the researchers could see that there was less stimulation in the parts of the brain involved in processing emotions (the amygdala, and the parahippocampal gyrus) in the meditators, compared to the controls, who got more upset.

According to the study abstract, "...more mindful individuals required less regulatory resources to attenuate emotional arousal. Our findings suggest emotion regulatory effects of a short mindfulness intervention on a neurobiological level." Being able to keep emotionally calm (or at least calmer) in difficult situations can lead to lower stress levels and is physically healthier, since stress hormones are reduced.