Meditation and Neuroscience: Unlocking the Science Behind Mindfulness

Ten Percent Happier
March 1, 2024
Scan of brain activity demonstrating the neuroscience of meditation

Meditation is becoming more popular every year globally. According to the Center for Disease Control, the proportion of adults in the United States who meditated in the past year tripled from 2012 to 2017. 

Studies in the field of neuroscience have shed light on the tangible effects meditation can exert on the brain and even help with reducing chronic pain. From the first studies in Western scientific literature in the 1950s and 60s to the present, scientists have investigated meditation’s effects on the body and mind.

Why Do People Practice Mindfulness Meditation?

Mindfulness meditation, a practice with roots deeply embedded in historical and cultural contexts, emphasizes being present and fully engaging with your lived experience. Mindfulness meditation has not only survived centuries but has changed and been changed by a variety of cultural contexts in both the East and West over the last 2,500 years

People are drawn to a mindfulness practice for its cognitive and emotional benefits, fostering a sense of peace, focus, and resilience. Practitioners start meditating for all kinds of reasons, including reducing stress, improving emotional health, enhancing self-awareness, and supporting overall well-being. Often, people come to meditation for the first time because their existing coping mechanisms for dealing with life’s ups and downs are no longer working. 

And of course, many people meditate for spiritual reasons. Meditation is a central component of Buddhism and an important part of many religions, including Hinduism, Taoism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism, Jainism, and the Baha’i faith. 

Science of Meditation: What Happens Scientifically When You Meditate?

The benefits of meditation, long reported through personal accounts, have been confirmed by science. Indeed, the neuroscience of meditation is now fairly well explored.

What happens in your brain activity when you meditate? You’re actually physically changing your mind. Neurological studies utilizing brain scans reveal significant changes during meditation, such as increased activity in areas related to attention, compassion, and calmness. 

Meditation impacts the autonomic nervous system, promoting a state of relaxation and stress reduction. In fact, meditation affects two different stress pathways in the brain, activating regions associated with attention and emotional regulation. 

Furthermore, meditation can trigger endorphin release, contributing to an enhanced sense of well-being. Specifically, brain scans during meditation show increased connectivity and activity in regions associated with positive emotions and self-regulation.

Are Meditation and Mindfulness Practices Safe?

While meditation is widely regarded as a safe practice, being purposefully alone with one’s thoughts isn’t easy. 

Meditation, when practiced correctly, has not been shown to cause adverse effects for most people.

However, individuals with certain mental health conditions should consult with their healthcare provider before beginning any new mental health practice. Professional psychologists and psychiatrists often endorse meditation for its mental health benefits, emphasizing its safety when practiced with awareness and proper guidance.

Ten Percent Happier’s co-founder, Dan Harris, was deeply concerned that “getting zen” via his meditation practice would cause him to lose focus and ambition. However, he’s found that being able to let go of his inner drill sergeant has allowed him to tap into  more sustainable sources of motivation. Many people who practice meditation find they have more focus (rather than brain fog) and more ambition (rather than laziness).

What Are the Health Benefits of Meditation and Mindfulness?


Meditation has been shown to enhance neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to form new connections and pathways. This adaptability plays a crucial role in learning and memory, allowing individuals to respond more effectively to new situations and challenges.

Sharpens Attention

Regular meditation practice improves focus and concentration, enabling practitioners to stay engaged in tasks for longer periods without succumbing to distractions.

According to a study from the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, mindfulness meditation improves executive attention even for novice meditators.

Improves Resiliency to Stress

Meditation strengthens the mind's resilience to stress by reducing reactivity to stressful situations, fostering a more balanced and calm response to life's challenges.

Meditation can also reduce cortisol levels in the body. Excess cortisol can lead to high blood pressure, weight gain, and changes in mood.

Age-related Memory Loss

Studies have linked meditation to a slower rate of cognitive decline, suggesting it can be beneficial in maintaining memory and mental clarity as one ages.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training was proven to sustain and even enhance working memory capacity, even in high-stress situations.

Better Physical Health by Maintaining a Healthy Blood Pressure

By promoting relaxation and reducing stress, meditation can contribute to healthier blood pressure levels, benefiting cardiovascular health.

Can Help with Substance Abuse and Impulsive Eating

Meditation aids in developing self-control and awareness, which can be instrumental in addressing behaviors like substance abuse and impulsive eating.

Dr. Judson Brewer teaches a course on mindful eating in the Ten Percent Happier app. A psychiatrist and internationally known expert in clinical mindfulness training, Dr. Brewer has developed and tested novel mindfulness programs for addictions, including smoking cessation and overeating. He has also studied the neural mechanisms of mindfulness using standard and real-time fMRI, and is translating these findings into clinical use.

What Are the Other Benefits of Meditation Training?

Increases Compassion

Meditation fosters a greater capacity for empathy and compassion, both towards oneself and others.

Improves Relationships

By enhancing emotional intelligence and communication skills, meditation can lead to more meaningful and harmonious relationships.

Enhances Well-Being and Happiness

Regular practitioners often report increased levels of happiness and an overall enhanced sense of well-being, attributed to the mindfulness and self-awareness cultivated through meditation.

What Kind of Meditation Is Right for You?

From guided to unguided, walking to sitting, loving kindness meditation, focused attention meditation, and more, any of the practiced meditation techniques offer unique benefits. Finding the right fit is key to reaping the specific advantages you seek. For beginners or those looking to deepen their practice, exploring our How to Meditate and Mindfulness Meditation: The Basics pages can offer a solid foundation. An app that guides you alongside top-tier meditation teachers can significantly enhance your journey.

Try the Science-Backed Meditation App That Helps You Grow Your Meditation Practice

The Ten Percent Happier app caters to users at all levels of meditation practice. Featuring a wide array of guided meditations, insights from world-renowned teachers, and structured courses, it is designed to help users discover and expand the benefits of meditation. To learn more about Ten Percent Happier and how it can support your meditation journey, visit our App Membership page.

Embarking on a meditation practice is not just a journey into mindfulness but a science-backed path to enhanced well-being, grounded in centuries of tradition and decades of research. Whether you are seeking to improve mental clarity, emotional health, or simply find a moment of peace in a hectic world, meditation offers a proven, accessible solution.

With the Ten Percent Happier app, you’ll access practical teachings alongside guided meditations to make mindfulness into a habit you carry everywhere.

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