Meditation Benefits for Mental Health, the Brain and Success

This article is written by Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.), Counsellor & Learning Specialist at Langara College Counselling Department.


Latest Research: Meditation Improves Learning & Memory

There is a growing consensus in the scientific literature that medications plays a seminal role in the enhancement of mental and physical wellness as well as learning, memory, focus and concentration. As noted by Jabr:

In one study, meditation and yoga were correlated not only with less stress but also with 47 to 62 minutes of increased productivity per week…” (2018, pp. 22-27).

Note that it is not just the amount of time that is enhanced but the actual productivity that is achieved in that time as a result of meditation and yoga.

Research findings increasingly challenge the notion that being always busy is “good for you”; to the contrary, relaxation and meditation help to increase our concentration, attention and overall focus which in turn lead to mental and physical wellness as well as enhanced success in one’s domains of endeavor.

The Power of Your Thinking, Executive Function and Your Wellness

It is Estimated that the average person may think an average of 60,000 thoughts per day, although estimates of this vary anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 thoughts per day. Whatever the precise numbers, it is generally agreed that the average person will tens of thousands of thoughts – put simply, humans generate large amount of thoughts each day.

In general, most of our thoughts tend to be the same or similar to thoughts we had in previous days. Unfortunately, these may frequently involve negative thoughts which often relates to negative past events or something negative that may happen to us in the future (the classical case of worry).

Negative thoughts can lead to the release of cortisol (the “Stress Hormone”) into the bloodstream. This in turns leads to the weakening of the immune system which in turn inhibits the actions of the white cells resulting in the susceptibility to colds, flu, infections, and even weight gain.

Thoughts in turn are steered by our executive function notably [1] working memory, [2] cognitive flexibility and [3] impulse control:

[1] Working memory: this is our “mental scratchpad” which helps keep our ideas in place when we are engaged in a conversation and plays a crucial role in the “Now”. Put simply a healthy working memory plays a critical role in our ability to communicate and from relationships with other people. This same “scratchpad” is critical for typical scholastic activities such as problem solving in mathematics (including basic arithmetic) as well as reading paragraphs (e.g. remembering the beginning part of a paragraph as you reach the end of that same paragraph).

[2] Cognitive flexibility: this involves ones’ appreciation of viewing “obstacles” as being exciting challenges to be overcome. Instead of becoming bogged down in negative feelings (as well as thoughts of inadequacy) the health sense of cognitive flexibility opens the person to new ways of meeting challenges. As a result, the person meets challenges with an increasing sense of problem-solving, “thinking outside of the box”, creativity as well as the willingness to learn from past experience (including past mistakes).

[3] Impulse control: this process engages the healthy and adaptive management of our core human impulses (hunger, anger, fear, etc.). This process empowers us with respect to our willingness to block inappropriate and/or disruptive thoughts and feelings in social as well as school and work situations. For example our ability to manage our impulses allows us to communicate much more adaptively with other persons in social and/or work situations. Impulse control is also necessary when we are engaged in various tasks such as reading, note-taking as well as any other type of learning activity.

Note that much of what entails executive function can be significantly impacted by our attitude, sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem. When we are resilient in these domains we are also more motivated which enables us to exert more flexibility in our cognition, take control of our impulses and pay closer attention (working memory). The cultivation of the growth mindset (the belief that learning abilities, intelligence, relationships and work performance can be consistently improved) can have a beneficial impact on executive function. As noted by the Buddha (563 or 480 BCE – 483 or 480 BCE):

“The mind is Everything. What you think, you become”

Modern science has essentially proven the Buddha and many of the ancient philosophers as correct.

Focused Attention Meditation and the Brain

Central to the focused attention meditation strategy is the focus upon our in-out breathing cycle. As the mind wanders, we then need to draw our attention back to the focus of our meditation, which in this case is our breathing. However, as noted later in this section, the object of focus can be other domains as determined by our objectives.

The four stages of the focused attention meditation technique as outlined by Ricard, Lutz, and Davidson (2018) involve the following stages and associated brain regions:

[Step 1] The mind gets distracted: this is the case when our thoughts and attention being to wander and get drawn into irrelevant topics/thoughts. This process typically involves the posterior cingulate cortex and precuneus. While this is not unusual in and of itself (all of us do get distracted at times), having too many distractions may indicate a lack of impulse control/management. This ties into a key aspect of executive control discussed previously: impulse control. If this is an issue, then this may indicate in the broader sense that the impulsive emotions emanating from the limbic system and basal ganglia regions as well as the brain stem areas are not being controlled and managed by our “higher level” cortical regions (frontal lobes, etc.). There are several reasons why this could be happening including stress, depression, anxiety, past trauma, PTSD as well as ADD/ADHD. The good news is that by engaging in the ensuing stages of the focused attention meditation technique [2-3], one then begins to enhance one’s abilities to adaptively manage one’s impulsive thoughts and emotions.

[Step 2] Awareness of being distracted: This is the willingness to observe and acknowledge to oneself that one is distracted. The process of being self-aware of our distractions(s) involves the brain’s anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortex (also known as the salience network). The role of the insula is of interest as this is one of the key brain regions (in the limbic system) that helps us to “hit the brakes” in response to being highly stressed, anxious, emotionally dysregulated and of course distracted and mentally disorganized.

[Step 3] Re-orienting our awareness. This is the process of re-focusing and re-orientating toward our task as we move away from the distraction(s). The brain regions involved in this process are the dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex and the interior parietal lobe. It is noteworthy that recent studies of intelligence (IQ) have found that the parietal regions are just as critical as the frontal and temporal lobes (see for example Haier, 2015). In a sense, the willingness to engage in moving away from distraction(s) towards our task(s) involves executive function:

  1. Working memory: our working memory becomes more efficient in “focus” by ensuring that “irrelevant” information does not take up the limited space of this domain (2)
  2. Cognitive flexibility: the process of shifting our attention away from irrelevant to relevant stimuli is a key feature of cognitive flexibility. Like working memory and impulse management, cognitive flexibility benefits by the process of re-orienting our awareness during focused attention meditation technique.
  3. Impulse management: distractions often have an impulsive nature, notably in the manner these can pull us away from our focus. By practicing the process of re-orienting our awareness, the focused attention meditation technique empowers our ability to adaptively manage our impulses.

[Step 4] Maintaining Your focus: this is the process of sustaining your focus once you have re-oriented this away from the distraction(s). You are now maintaining your focus and attention in a manner that is free of distraction(s). Interestingly, like step [3] (reorientation of awareness) the dorsolateral section of the prefrontal cortex is involved.  This would suggest that the dorsolateral cortex is involved in the “reset” [3] and maintenance [4] of our focus and attention.

The four-step Focused Attention Meditation technique has applications for both personal counselling for enhancing wellness as well enhancing success in learning and work environments. For mental wellness enhancement, clients can be educated to engage in the four steps as follows:

[Step 1] Client is invited to pay close attention to how and when their mind wanders into negative thoughts and toxic emotions.

[Step 2] Client is now guided towards their process of inner awareness by gently observing that they are experiencing those negative emotions and thoughts.

[Step 3] The next step is acknowledging for the client that they are empowered to engage in the reorientation of their awareness. This is the process where the client realizes that they are empowered (and have self-permission) to gently disengage their attention from negative thoughts and emotions in favor of refocusing their awareness upon constructive thoughts, words, emotions, moods and actions.

[Step 4] The final step is guiding the client into sustaining their focus by gently maintaining that focus and attention upon constructive thoughts, words, emotions, moods and actions.

Each of the above steps [1-4] involves the cultivation of a deep and profound sense of self-empathy by the client. Identified by Neff as self-compassion, inherent to this process [1-4] is the cultivation of the sense of moving away from self-flagellation (Krakovsky, 2018, pp.48-53). With the diminution of self-flagellation and the growth of self-compassion, the client will hopefully be moving towards being more flexible (cognitive flexibility) in order to permit themselves the option of re-orienting their awareness and maintaining their focus [steps 3-4]. These lead to enhanced working memory performance and impulse control. This then empowers the client to control the information entering into their working memory as well as allowing them more successfully to block distracting impulses from misdirecting their focus and attention.

The four-step Focused Attention technique can also be also applied for concentration as applied for learning and studying purposes:

[Step 1] Mind wanders away from main topic(s) when one is studying

[Step 2] Distraction Awareness: engaging in (gentle) awareness that one has become distracted

[Step 3] Reorientation towards Concentration and Focus on Learning task: this involves the (gentle) process of disengaging one’s attention away from the distracting topic. It is adaptive here to not be critical and/or negative toward oneself for having been distracted. In addition, the process of reorientation is not to be done in a forceful and coercive fashion (i.e. “I must do this”).

[Step 4] Maintaining Concentration and Focus: Gently maintaining one’s Concentration and Focus on the task. Often one very effective technique for maintaining Concentration and Focus is to engage in short and goal-focused study chunks (typically 25 minutes) interspersed with relaxing 5-minute breaks.

It is also helpful to note that the mastery of our thoughts with the four-step technique (or any meditation technique) is a long-term process that we can patiently cultivate over time.

Mindfulness Meditation and the Brain

The process of Mindfulness Meditation (also known as “Open Monitoring Meditation”) involves the observation of one’s internal thoughts, internal bodily sensations, sights, sounds and various other sensations – However – one does not get carried away by these.

Key brain components for mindfulness meditation are the insular cortex and the amygdala. It is notable that expert meditators have less activity in their amygdala region which is typically associated with stress and anxiety. Interestingly, the brains of Buddhist monks engaged in meditation have been scientifically studied by Zoran Josipovic (Research scientist & adjunct professor, New York University) as reported in a BBC report:

BBC News (Matt Danzico, April 23, 2011): Brains of Buddhist monks scanned in Meditation Study

Josipovic scanned the brains of twenty meditating Buddhist monks using a 5000-kilogram MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine. The MRI scanner tracks the blood flow within the monk’s brain as they engage in meditation.

Josipovic’s findings can be summarized as follows: meditation cultivates a person’s attention skills which lead towards greater tranquility and happiness.

The implications of this research were also ground-breaking in that meditation empowers the brain’s ability to change in ways we did not realize was possible.

Josipovic observes the following when one relaxes into a state of oneness as a result of meditation:

[1] Neural networks in experienced practitioners change as they lower the psychological wall between themselves and their environments

[2] Brain reorganization may lead to what meditators claim to be a deep state of harmony between themselves and their surroundings

Josipovic further avers that the brain is apparently organized into two distinct and interacting networks:

[1] Extrinsic Network: this is active when the person is focused on external tasks such as playing sports, pouring a cup of coffee, writing a memo, etc.

[2] Intrinsic (or “Default”) Network: this is activated when the person is focused on their internal reflection on matters related to the self and one’s core emotions

When one is in a “regular” state, these two networks rarely become active simultaneously. Instead (when one is in the “regular” state) these networks act like a seesaw in that when one rises, the other falls. This (seesaw) process allows the person to remain focused and concentrated on tasks without becoming distracted (such as daydreaming, etc.).

What Josipovic also discovered is that meditators are capable of simultaneously activating their extrinsic and intrinsic networks during meditation. This means that they can exercise direct control of their “seesaw process” between their (internal and external) networks. As a result of this capability, meditators experience a deep sense of harmony and “oneness” between themselves and their environment.

More recent studies have revealed additional (positive) impacts of meditation upon the brain. One example is a 2019 study by Zhang, Wang, Wang, Liu, Zhang and Zhou which has confirmed that emotional regulation is significantly enhanced by mindfulness meditation. Another key study on mindfulness meditation by Lazar et al. (Harvard University) for example discovered the following:

[1] Mindfulness meditation can result in the reduction in volume of the amygdala (specifically: areas associated with fear processing)

[2] The brain impacts impact was most pronounced for research participants who demonstrated significant levels of Stress Reduction during mindfulness training.

The Lazar et al. study is complemented by that of Lunders et al. (UCLA) who discovered that meditators had a greater number of axons connecting their different brain regions.

Mindfulness meditation has also been shown to have a constructive impact on relationships. A key 2019 study by May, Ostafin and Snippe has examined the impact of mindfulness meditation on the affects of persons in interpersonal relationships (friendships and partners/personal relationships).  The study found that persons engaging in mindfulness meditation for 15 minutes a day experienced:

“… decreased negative affect, increased positive affect, and higher scores on the mindfulness facets of observing, describing, and nonreactivity to inner experience … This study indicates that 15 min of daily meditation in novice meditators can decrease the negative affect of relationship partners”.

Our Focus and Attention: What Information do We Select and What do We Reject?

The aim of meditation is the management of our focus and attention. Central to this “management” process is the selection and rejection of sensory information reaching your Mind. When we “manage” our attention system well, we (a) Select that sensory information that helps us towards our goals and (b) reject irrelevant and distracting sensory information distancing us from our goals. Concomitantly when we lack management of our attention system, we (a) select irrelevant and distracting sensory information that distances us from our goals and (b) reject sensory information that helps us towards our goals. The management of sensory information into our consciousness is critical as this heavily impacts our thoughts, actions, posture and speech.

Sensory input in the brain travels along “Super Highways” into the thalmus where the information is mixed in slightly. The thalmus acts as a “bureaucratic center” deciding which information is eligible to be passed onto the “Boss” in association areas of the cortex for more processing. The mixing of the signals in the cortical association areas result in what is essentially a “movie in the mind”.

Information that is not attended to can have a major impact on our learning (both in-class and in everyday life). This (unattended to) information can then arrive at the thalmus which will then pass on the information to the “Boss” (the neocortex). This information can then interfere with our learning and goals in general. An example of this is listening to a talk show while we are learning a new task or studying.

Interestingly a 2018 study by Norris, Creem, Hendler and Kober has found that even brief Mindfulness Meditation (10 minutes) improves focus and attention in novices. More specifically the Norris et al. study supports the theory that even brief meditation has clear benefits with respect to improving one’s allocation of attentional resources, notably in novices. Another 2019 study by Sevinc, Hölzel, Greenberg, Gard, Brunsch, Hashmi, Vangel, Orr, Milad and Laza has found the following:

[1] Mindfulness training has been found to heighten attention and awareness of sensory experience

[2] As a result of increased attention and awareness of sensory experience, extinction learning, emotional regulation are enhanced which leads to the reduction of anxiety symptoms.

[3] Mindfulness training results in the enhancement of neural connections between the hippocampus and primary sensory cortex. These new and enhanced neural systems enhance resilience against stress and the extinction of fear responses.

The “Lock-in Heart” Meditation Strategy and the Schumann Resonance Effect

The Schuman Resonance effect pertains the earth’s geomagnetic frequency which resonates at a frequency of 7.83 Hertz, although it has been reported that this statistic has been increasing due to shifts in the earth geomagnetic activity. While there has been much debate as to whether the earth’s geomagnetic activity and Schuman frequency are related to mental and physical wellness, an interesting study by McCraty et al. published in the December 2018 edition of the Journal of Complexity in Health Sciences did investigate this possible relationship.

The researchers applied a meditation technique known as the “Heart Lock-in” system. This system of meditation focuses on enhancing the coherence of the person’s heart rhythms. This is achieved by an average of 5 to 15 minutes of focused meditation for the enhancement of positive emotions. Utilizing advanced technology for the monitoring of participant’s ANS (autonomic nervous system) activities and matching these patterns to geomagnetic frequencies, McCraty et al. found that participants trained in “Heart Lock-in” meditation not only enhanced their mental and physical health but were also found to be increasingly synchronous with the geomagnetic pulses of their local environment.

The implications of the McCraty et al. are indeed significant: there appears to be significant relationship between one’s (mental and physical) wellness and the earth’s geomagnetic pulses. Put simply, when are “in sync” with our heart rhythms and the earth’s geomagnetic pulses, we enhance  our wellness, concentration, vitality, self-esteem, self-efficacy and “IQ”.

Meditation Wellness Benefits of Compassion and Loving Kindness

A form of meditation related to the “Lock-in Heart” system is one which specifically works to cultivate feelings of benevolence, compassion, empathy, kindness towards friends as well as adversaries or “enemies” (people who have done negative things to you or bear ill will towards you). With respect to the latter (“enemies”) group, this meditation system is specifically designed to reduce one’s sense of anger, revenge, hatred, retribution, etc. towards such persons.

It is notable that the cultivation of the sense of loving kindness and compassion leads to several brain regions experiencing enhanced neural activity, notably in the temporo-parietal region (this is where the temporal and parietal lobes are connected/linked, at the Sylvian Fissure’s posterior end).

An adaptive scenario would be the case of being mindful of self-generating such sentiments (compassion and loving kindness) during the day while at home, engaged at work or partaking in recreational activities. This process would facilitate the diminishing of the heavy (wellness) costs of harboring (and/or generating) negative emotions and maladaptive thoughts.

As noted by David Suzuki, The Sacred Balance (Greystone Books & David Suzuki Foundation, 1997 & 2007):

“… condensed molecules from breath exhaled from verbal expressions of anger, hatred, and jealousy, contain toxins. Accumulated over 1 hr, these toxins are enough to kill 80 guinea pigs!” Note: We take (approx.) 20,000 breaths per day

Anger and/or sadness (like all emotions) have a generate a distinct biochemical reaction in the brain-body system. With anger adrenaline levels are raised, leading to fatigue, low motivation, and diminished energy levels. As the emotional centers of the brain (the limbic system) is directly implicated, so too is the process of learning as the hippocampus (which the builder of new learning and memory) is itself located in the limbic system. Hence elevated anger can also have a negative impact on one’s learning process, and with regards to school, result in lower marks.

It is notable that clinging to negative memories and thoughts causes significant changes to the biochemistry of the brain, which then releases cortisol (the stress hormone) into the blood stream which leads to a weakened immune system and the inhibition of the actions of white blood cells. This then increases the chances of catching colds, flu, and infections as well as the promotion of weight gain.

Meditation Leading to Adaptive Brain Restructuring?

There have been a number of significant scientific studies that has researched the beneficial impacts of meditation on the brain (see a summary of these in Ricard, Lutz and Davidson, 2018, pp.91-97). The overall research findings indicate that meditation can help significantly in enhancing select brain regions associated with the following:

[1] Focused Attention: the process of upgrading of your concentration and focus

[2] Mindfulness: the process of “tuning up” and “balancing” your mind and emotions

[3] Compassion and loving kindness: this results in the reduction of toxic anger and fear

Lazar et al. of Harvard University (as cited by Ricard, Lutz and Davidson, 2018, p.97) have specifically investigated as to whether meditation can lead to structural changes in brain tissue. Using MRI Technology, the researchers found that longtime meditators possessed a greater volume of brain tissue (specifically gray matter or neurons) in the pre-frontal cortex (Brodmann areas 9 and 10) and the insula. It is notable that Brodmann areas 9 and 10 (also known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) have functions that include the management of working memory and focused attention. The insula in general plays a key role in the regulation of emotions and notably empathy.

A follow-up study by Lazar et al. (as cited by Ricard, Lutz and Davidson, 2018, p.97) also discovered a decrease in the volume of the amygdala regions of the limbic system – this is especially significant as the amygdala is involved in the processing of fear and anxiety.

The end result is of course enhanced concentration, mental and physical health. But perhaps more surprising (or controversial?) are research findings suggesting that even brain matter may be enhanced as a result of meditation.

Note that the meditation does not have to be “meditation” in the traditional sense.  This means that even developing a sense of awareness of your concentration/focus, being consciously mindful of the balance between your thoughts and emotions and developing a genuine (human) sense of empathy for others. Applying these thinking processes on a consistent and daily basis will essentially equate the benefits derived from focused attention and mindfulness meditation practices. All of these processes (notably compassion and loving kindness) have constructive and adaptive implications for the brain.

Nevertheless, “success” in this endeavor is the willingness to see oneself as a work in progress, which is working to be in the “Zone” throughout your day. Success is not a matter of the “quick fix” – this entails a long-term commitment by oneself to improve oneself throughout one’s lifespan.

As discussed in this article, the ancient benefits of meditation have been corroborated with fMRI and EEG based studies. Meditation practices appear increasingly linked to constructive neurological changes, such as increased communications between neurons (i.e. increase in “white matter” or neuronal [axon-dentrite] connections). Interestingly these same meditation practices also lead to a decrease in brain activities associated with the “ego” or “I” regions of the brain (the limbic system, basal ganglia and brain stem).


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Jabr, F. (2018). How to succeed at work: give me a break. Scientific American Mind, Spring, pp. 22-27.

Krakovsky, M. (2018). The Self-Compassion Solution. Scientific American Mind, Volume 27, Number 1, April, pages 48-53.

May, C.J., Ostafin, B.D. & Snippe, E. (2019). Mindfulness meditation is associated with decreases in partner negative affect in daily life. European Journal of Social Psychology, 50, pp.35-45, DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.2599

McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., Timofejeva, I., Joffe, R., Vainoras, A., Landauskas, M., Alabdulgader, A.A., & Ragulskis, M. (2018). The influence of heart coherence on synchronization between human heart rate variability and geomagnetic activity. The Journal of Complexity in Health Sciences, December, Vol 1, Issue 2, pp.42-48.

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Sevinc, G., Hölzel, B.K., Greenberg, J., Gard, T., Brunsch, V., Hashmi, J.A., Vangel, M., Orr, S.P., Milad, M.R., & Laza, S.W. (2019). Strengthened Hippocampal Circuits Underlie Enhanced Retrieval of Extinguished Fear Memories Following Mindfulness Training. Biological Psychiatry: A Journal of Psychiatric Neuroscience and Therapeutics, 86, pp. 693–702, DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2019.05.017

Zhang, Q., Wang, Zh., Wang, X., Liu, L., Zhang, J. & Zhou, R. (2019). The Effects of Different Stages of Mindfulness Meditation Training on Emotion Regulation. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 13, Article 208, DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2019.00208

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