Alot already has been written about the science behind mindfulness. To date, such efforts have largely been a mixed bag of reasonably and badly designed studies with questionable methodologies, designs and gold-standard studies. What then is the truth behind all the scientific benefits of mindfulness?

A brief anatomy of the brain

The brain is a highly evolved and complex organ. Its detailed overview is beyond the scope of this article. However, if one is to truly grasp how the mind operates, then it is useful to divide the brain into two segments. The first is the ‘top-down’ component. The second is the ‘bottoms-up’ component.

With respect to the top-down component, it largely relates to executive control. It is generally slower than the ‘bottoms-up’ part of the brain and it considered to be the seat of self-control. It is also able to make plans, learn new models and is part of the brain that is activated when there is wilful effort or control. This is often described as the ‘mamalian’ part of the brain.

On the other hand, the bottoms-up component is much faster and impulsive. It is involuntary and always switched-on. It is the part of the brain that guides habits and manages mental health. The bottoms-up component is often described as the ’emotional brain’. There is also the ‘reptilian’ brain which is even more instinctive.

science behind mindfulness

Mindfulness & attention

According to the dean of contemplative neuroscience at Wisconsin university, mindfulness ‘boosts the classic attention network in the brain’s frontal-parietal system that works together to allocate attention. These circuits are fundamental in the basic movement of attention: disengaging your focus from one thing, moving it to another, and staying with the new object of attention.’

For an overview of this functional connectivity of the frontoparietal network see below.

So when it comes to which part of the brain mindfulness strengthens, it is the ‘top-down component’. In other words, that part of the brain that helps you to concentrate. It is the part of the brain that helps to regulate emotions. So the science behind mindfulness could be summarised as one that helps improve ‘focus’.

Mindfulness & distractions

Mindfulness also strengthens the mind’s muscle, helping to inhibit the pull of distractions. Mind-wandering is a natural thing. It may also be good for you. However the opposite is also true – too much mind-wandering is a recipe for lack of productivity, and even unhappiness. If productivity is a result of good concentration, then practising mindfulness helps improve the level of cognitive control. In other words, it helps build ‘meta-awareness’, which is the mind’s ability to notice that are you not noticing.

Interestingly enough, it is the same part of the brain (the lateral pre-frontal cortex). that produces mind-wandering and also the one that notices that your mind has wandered.

Mindfulness & stress reduction

When mindfulness is practiced in combination with breathwork, then pronounced physiological effects occur. The vagus nerve, the 10th cranial nerve that runs from the brain stem down through the heart to the abdomen, de-regulates producing a calming effect upon the body. The vagus nerve manages a number of physiological functions in the body, including heart-rate. Improving vagal tone then is one way to help combat stress and regulate the harmful effects of negative emotions. It also then helps improve attention.

Other benefits

Mindfulness has been shown to help on a biological level – from reducing hyper-tension to reducing chronic pain. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Massachusetts Stress Reduction Clinic, the method of ‘bare attention’ to your inner state brings about the subtle shifts in physiological states as well as helping to break destructive habits and form new emotional responses. For example, stopping smoking, or paying attention to what you eat in order to lose weight.

To this extent, mindfulness could be described as helping to ‘tune in’ more to the world and what is going on around you. Professor Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist from the University of California, describes mindfulness practice as strengthening the ‘resonance circuit’ – that between ourselves and others. In particular, when it comes to compassion, if you are more able to tune in to your own feelings, you are more likely to be more empathetic and feel the suffering of others. Compassion then, is the ‘crown jewel of mindfulness’.

Mindfulness also strengthens the circuity between the amygdala, two almond shaped clusters of cells which reside within the middle of the brain and is responsible for processing emotions (ie the ‘bottoms up’ component of the brain), and the pre-frontal executive part of the brains (the ‘top-down’ component of the brain). This helps to regulate the gap between impulses and action, which builds meta-awareness. In other words, this helps to improve the ability to ‘observe your thoughts’, rather than being carried away by them.

Mindulness through meditation

The key to developing the benefits of increased focal attention and to be less easily distracted is grounded in ‘mindfulness meditation‘. Through practising mindfulness as a meditation, you begin to retrain the habits of attention – from one of mind-wandering to one of focus.

Indeed, the mind-wandering itself is a source of ‘nourishment’ as Shunryu Zuzuki said in his classic book, ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind‘. The ‘weeds’ of mind-wandering are in fact the way the mind trains itself. Like in hatha yoga, you need a body. In mindfulness meditation, you need your ‘thoughts’ too.

Myths about mindfulness

It has been widely referenced that practising mindfulness (as part of a stress reduction course such as MBSR), for as little as 8 weeks results in changes in the structure of the brain, in particular with respect to volume, density and thickness. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to replicate such findings in a fully randomised trial and therefore the neuroplasticity of the brain, at least during an 8 week course of a mindfulness-based intervention (such as MBSR), is not something that can be claimed with sufficient certainty.

That said, this is not to dispute the profound psychological benefits of the practice which has helped many people overcome mental and physical health challenges.

The science behind mindfulness

The science behind mindfulness has been shown to improve the ability to focus and also to be less easily distracted. It helps to regulate emotions and allows you to become more compassionate. Overall, mindfulness-based interventions are a highly effective way of improving emotional intelligence and self-regulation.

If I can help you develop a mindfulness practice, please feel free to get in touch or email me at


Daniel Goleman, 2014, Focus, Bloomsbury Publishing plc UK

Shunryu Zuzuki, 1970, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, Shambala Publications, Inc.

Tammi R A Kral, Kaley Davis, Cole Korponay, Matthew J Hirshberg, Rachel Hoel, Lawrence Y Tello, Robin Goldman, Melissa A Rosenkranz, Antonie Lutz, Richard Davidson, ‘Absence of structural brain changes from mindfulness-based stress reduction: Two combined randomized controlled trials,’ Science, 20 May 2022, Vol 8, Issue 20.