This is Your Brain on Mindfulness (Lion’s Roar / Shambhala Sun)

Meditators say their practice fundamentally changes the way they experience life. Michael Baime reports on how modern neuroscience is explaining this in biological terms.


Meditators find truth through carefully exploring their inner subjective experience in what some people like to call “first-person investigation.” Science looks to the external material world and relies on third-person investigation and methodologies that lead to discoveries that can be tested and replicated by peers in the scientific world. The ways that these traditions search for truth couldn’t be more different, and yet it shouldn’t surprise us to find that the two truths are actually one.

Nevertheless, scientists have traditionally viewed meditators’ assertions with a healthy skepticism, and meditators have often felt the same way about scientists’ requirement for objective proof of meditation’s benefits. More recently, however, there has been an explosion of both popular and scientific interest in the biology and neuroscience of meditation. The National Institutes of Health has funded numerous research projects to explore the effects of meditation, ongoing investigations are exploring the role of meditation and mindfulness on health and healing, and neuroscientists have recorded brain waves and made pictures of brain activity in many thousands of meditators, ranging from novices in urban practice centers to monks in the secluded monasteries of Tibet.

There is no question that you can become a perfectly good meditator without any complicated neuroimaging technology. On the other hand, for those of us who are interested in practicing mindfulness and other related forms of meditation, the modern science of meditation offers us a window into some very interesting—and important—areas of our practice and our lives. Can the benefits meditators say they experience—increased calm, decreased stress, better attention, and so forth—be traced to actual neural changes?

In the last several decades, the scientific study of meditation has provided increasingly concrete proof of the inseparability of body and mind. It has also demonstrated ways we can literally change ourselves and our world through practice; shown us the observable changes in the systems and subsystems that govern our attention as we progress from the focus of mindfulness to the panorama of awareness; and even given us a glimpse of the biological basis of the illusion of the self.

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