Meditation training increases the ability to perceive the self in a more healthy, present-moment way

Mindful self-awareness is associated with decreased activation of brain regions associated with rumination, according to research published in the journal Biological Psychology.

Using fMRI brain scans, the researchers compared 21 experienced mindfulness meditators with 19 people who were meditating for the first time. They found the neural correlates of mindfulness were more pronounced in experienced meditators. In particular, the experienced meditators showed decreased activation in prefrontal cortical midline structures and language-related left inferior prefrontal areas.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Jacqueline Lutz of the University of Zurich. Read her explanation of the research below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

In general, I am interested in how aspects of the self – e.g perceiving our own body, thinking about ourselves, making judgments about the self, etc. – differ between people. Our concept and perception of ourself is crucial for mental health and well-being, but hard to change. Thus another interest of mine is how approaches such as mindfulness meditation training might affect how we perceive the self in everyday life and how such changes are mirrored in the brain. Finally, though such changes related to mindfulness training have been hypothesized, scientific studies in that area are relatively scarce. So it seemed a crucial area to study further.

What should the average person take away from your study?

Mindful self-awareness is a non-judgemental, present-moment awareness of body and contents of the mind. On the neural level, this form of awareness quietens regions related to inner speech, ​thinking about the self, and ruminating, while regions related to the perception of the body are activated. In our study we found that the neural pattern during mindful self and body awareness was stronger in less depressed, healthier individuals. Thus, mindful self-awareness seems to represent a particularly healthy mode of self-perception.

We also found – as expected – that neural activations related to mindful self-awareness were particularly strong in expert mindfulness meditators. More interestingly, we also show that when we instruct untrained participants to enter relatively short periods of mindful self-awareness in the MRI scanner, these patterns can also be seen in untrained participants.

This means, meditation training increases the ability to perceive the self in a more healthy, present-moment, body-centered way, but also that already in untrained individuals, short periods of mindful self-awareness are possible and offer the potential to enter a healthy self-perception state.​

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

The study is a cross-sectional study. This means the groups (meditators and non-meditators) could have had a priori differences in other aspects than meditation training.

Longitudinal follow-up studies are needed to reach causal conclusions on whether and how meditation training exactly influences self-related mechanisms. Such longitudinal studies should also be conducted in patient populations, to see whether we see relevant changes in self-related mechanisms in the clinical setting.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I am currently studying the potential of self-compassion to increase healthy self-related functioning in collaboration with the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at the Cambridge Health Alliance in collaboration with the MGH Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging as a postdoctoral research fellow.

The study, “Neural correlates of mindful self-awareness in mindfulness meditators and meditation-naïve subjects revisited“, was also co-authored by A.B. Bruhl, H. Scheerer, L. Jancke and U. Herwig.