The science of mindfulness and meditation has attracted a lot of attention in the last couple of decades. In this frame, we will take a look at what the meditation research is pointing toward and reflect on the role of science in the context of mindfulness and meditation.

“…the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.”

William James

First, a word of caution

I want to be careful when claiming scientific proof of the benefits of meditation. While the findings are in many cases fantastic, many of the studies are small and the field of research is still young. Even when referring to the scientifically validated results, we need to be careful to generalise those benefits and claim equivalence. These benefits were demonstrated under certain circumstances – most commonly through eight-week, in-person mindfulness interventions (MBSR, MBCT, etc.) with experienced teachers. So we should be careful to conclude that any type of meditation, under any circumstances, will yield the same results.

I personally think it can be harmful to the mindfulness field to exaggerate scientific evidence or present it out of context. The Mindfulness Initiative says it well:

Let us be clear: at no point will we claim that mindfulness alone will solve the world’s problems. Nor will it render limitless our free will irrespective of the social structures that constrain and condition us. Mindfulness training is not a silver bullet but rather an activator of important capacities within the wider ecosystem of intentional action. These capacities are innate, available and already part of human experience.

Fieldbook for Mindfulness Innovators

At a glance

So let’s start with a broad overview. A good way to get an overview of the research is to look at meta analyses, which are systematic reviews that summarise results of several studies using statistical methods. These studies generally show that standard mindfulness based interventions (normally 8 week courses) have consistent and reliable effects on psychological and physical measures of health and wellbeing, in both adults and young people.

A closer look

Our brains are plastic, meaning that they constantly change and reshape themselves. Specifically, our neural circuits are rewired based on how we use our minds and attention. In other words, we get good at what we practice. If we practice mind wandering and scattering our attention, this is what the brain will optimise for. These are the neural pathways that get strengthened.

We now know that meditation can literally rewire the brain in favour of concentration and ability to pay attention to what we are experiencing in the present moment. Well known studies carried out by Sara Lazar revealed that eight weeks of daily meditation literally changed the brain structure of the people who participated in the studies.

Scientifically validated benefits includes:

  • The meditation practice led to decreased levels of stress
    • This was correlated with decreased gray matter in the amygdala – the brain structure that works like a “threat radar” and triggers emotions like anger and fear. So it seems that we become less inclined to experience our surroundings as threatening, and out autonomic nervous system can come into balance. That explains the success of the mindfulness interventions focusing on stress reduction (MBSR). This alone can be a life changer and life saver for many people.
  • And so is reduced symptoms of depression, trauma, anxiety disorders, pain, insomnia
    • Brain scans showed that the insula got bigger. This is the area of the brain that takes signals from the subcortical regions and assists emotional regulation. It also connects the two hemispheres in the brain. So it can help integrate the two ways of being that the hemispheres represent.
    • Another part of the brain that was strengthened was the left hippocampus, which is associated with learning and memory. Less gray matter in this region is associated with depression and PTSD.
    • A study with war veterans, pulished in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), using control groups, found that mindfulness interventions were more effective than standard treatments for improvements of PTSD symptoms, and overall quality of life.
  • Increased overall quality of life
  • Enhanced ability to pay attention
  • Improved immune function
  • Prevent cognitive deterioration
    • The frontal lobe (working memory and executive decision making), shrinks with age, but was found to be preserved in meditators.
  • Increased capacity for empathy and perspective taking
    • We talked about the insula, which grows thicker through meditation, and this is correlated not only with emotional regulation but also with increased empathy for other people.
    • Empathy has to do with perspective taking, which is associated with the temporo-parietal junction. Meditation increases gray matter in region, enhancing the ability to take the perspective of others.
    • And these findings become very clear in studies done on long-term meditators, tibetan meditation masters, where change in brain activity is very apparent. Most of us live our lives in beta activity, fast brainwaves associated with thread-detection and thinking, and waking consciousness. And when you fall into concentration, where you are relaxed and yet alert, flow states, mindfulness, the brainwaves slow down and you fall into alpha. This activity is associated with reduced negative moods and anger. The studies showed consistently higher levels of alpha in the experienced meditators, as well as much more pronounced brain region associated with empathy.

Beyond science

“Nobody had ever seen these types of signals before”.

Dr. Richard Davidsson

In some studies, researchers have found another type of brain activity, called “gamma waves”.

In a study with meditation master Mingyur Rinpoche, they found long periods of consistent gamma wave patterns, lasting for the entire duration of the meditaiton. Dr Richard Davidsson describes how, when they found this in the MRI machine, they assumed there is some error in the measurement, because gamma waves are usually not seen for more than fractions of a second in most brains. But they eventually found that it was real.

“That was really a very important moment, because from a scientific perspective, there was a there there”.

What is that “there” that was there? This activity is sometimes called “super consciousness”. From an outside perspective, this brain state is associated with the secretion of profounds neurotransmitters by the pineal gland (ones very similar to Dimethyltryptamine – the most powerful hallucinogenic known to man). From an inside perspective, this tends to trigger inner experiences that are almost always perceived by subjects to be more real than anything that they have experienced in the outer world.

These are truly life changing experiences. Dr Joe Dispenza describes this as the “body moving out of the past” and he has reported instances of unexplainable healing when this occurs. Studies have found amplitudes of energy thousands of times that of normal brain activity. This is where we approach the edge of scientific understanding.

Last words

We have a lot to learn about the effects of meditation. And I think science has an important part to play in this understanding. This is what we might call the “outer” aspect – that which can be observed and measured objectively. In this outer domain, we can measure brain activity, levels of hormones and neurotransmitters, we can do social studies and map out correlations and causations between inner work and outer effects.

Through this understanding that is now being presented, science can bring attention to the potential of “inner work”, which is greatly needed in a world that is so focused on the outer. It may even help make the benefits of meditation more scalable and reliable.

Important as this may be, science is not responsible for the benefits of meditation. It can merely demonstrate and validate them. Science is only beginning to catch up with what has been known inside many esoteric traditions for millennia. While it points to the tremendous power of “inner work”, it cannot give us access to that power. We have to do the work ourselves. This is the inner science of exploring what is true in our direct experience – beyond concepts, beliefs (even scientific ones) and ultimately beyond distinctions between inner and outer.

Further resources


Videos and referenced studies:

Indexes that bring together published papers

  • PyscINFO (American Psychological Association)
  • PubMed (US National Library of Medicine)

Research archives:

Research subscriptions:


Other helpful resources:

Continue with these Frames:

Coming back to our senses