Brain Studies Show Meditation Practice Alleviates Suffering

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, presents the latest findings from neuroscience on how meditation practice changes the brain, and offers fresh insight into concepts like mindfulness and suffering.

Here’s Part 2 of the video:

Highlights as transcribed from the presentation:

Experiential Self vs. Conceptual Self

Bran's Default State

The mind’s habit of carefully constructing and then rigidly defending a sense of self that is based on preferences, attitudes, beliefs, and personal stories is the default state that all humans share. When we are not focused on a specific goal or a specific object of attention, the mind defaults to a pattern of co-activation of different regions of the brain. These include, for example:

  • the hippocampus and the parietal cortex, which gives rise to thinking about the past, our memories;
  • the neo-prefrontal cortex, which helps us imagine the future, and also make informed commentary about what’s happening in the present moment—such as, there’s something wrong and it should be some other way–and to concoct some alternate realities that might improve the present moment;
  • other regions of the brain, including areas that process language, so we can tell ourselves stories about the way things are, the way things should be, the way things might go.

If we want to turn off this constant self-referential processing, is there a way to have a self-awareness moment to moment that doesn’t engage the default network and produce so much suffering?

Present Moment Self

Researchers at the University of Toronto led by Norman Farb sought to find out. They were very interested in whether there’s some other way to have a sense of awareness, including awareness of the self, that is not based on the narrative inside our head, the conceptual self, the stories. In other words, an experiential self that is based on the awareness of the constantly changing feelings, thoughts, and things going on in our environment–not based on the stories that we have in and that we cling to.

And they found that this is the case, but only in people who have trained in meditation…

Among trained practitioners, there is an alternate default mode in which the areas that are normally active in non-meditators don’t become more active. The neo-prefrontal cortex is not making commentary on what’s happening. You’re not engaging areas of the brain that are reminding you of how it could have been or how it used to be. These areas become deactivated. And the areas that come online, become more active, have to do with present moment embodied experience, including

  • the insula, which is attending to sensations in your body and especially to that embodied aspect of the emotions, of our feelings;
  • Areas that process somatic information, somatosensory cortex, that give you a full sense of what’ s happening. Not just in your body but in the environment, in the present moment. And even the lateral prefrontal cortex, which is really important for paying attention, what’s happening in your body, in your environment and turning down that commentary, the evaluation.

It’s important to note that this research found that you only see this alternate default mode in experienced meditators. In fact, when you bring in people who don’t meditate and you tell them what to do—such as, pay attention to your body, pay attention to your environment, be in the present moment–they can’t do it no matter how well you describe what that internal process would be like.

In part that’s because in most of our brains there is an automatic coupling between the experiential system–what’s happening in my body, what’s happening in the environment–and the evaluation system, the default mode, so that as soon as we turn our attention to something the inner commentary starts.

It turns out that when you practice, this neural coupling goes away. Thus you can activate the experiential system without automatically bringing online the inner commentary, the judging, the evaluation. And this is essentially what mindfulness practice is training us to do.

Over time with consistent practice, the regions of the brain that are detecting what’s happening without making commentary on it, those regions of the brain actually become thicker. They become more dense, so that your brain becomes better able to attend to experience, and less reliant on the inner commentary.

Physical Pain and Suffering

Meditation and Pain Study

A study led by Joseph Grant at the University of Montreal looked at how practitioners might experience pain differently from non-practitioners. Experienced  Zen meditators and non-meditators were given the exact same type of pain experience. They were strapping onto the calf thermal heat that is going to be quite painful. As a point of curiosity it turns out that experienced meditators need higher levels of heat in order to achieve the same level of moderate pain.

The meditators and non-meditators were asked to attend normally to the experience. They were not meditating. Meditators were not meditating. This is the new default. The non-meditators show more activation in the evaluative regions, that default network, the typical default network.

With meditators, on the other hand, the only areas of the brain that are more active are the areas that are listening to pain. Areas such as the insula and thalamus, that are just waiting to feel the pain that is happening, that are giving you perfect information about what is happening in your body. And yet meditators were able to tolerate more pain even as they carefully attended to it.

Those who have a strong practice will immediately recognize this is how we dissociate pain from suffering. That when we tend directly to the experience and turn off that inner chatter, suddenly the experience of suffering that seems to arise from pain starts to dissolve.

Within the meditators’ group, the greater the functional decoupling between the two brain systems–paying attention to the feeling of pain and making commentary about it–the greater they were dissociated, the higher the meditator’s pain tolerance was.

It is really important as a teacher of meditation to know that this is what happens in experienced meditators.

Pain Unpleasantness in Meditators

A study led by researchers at Wake Forest University took brand new meditators that had only been practicing mindfulness meditation for 4 days. When they were brought into the laboratory and given the same exact same pain task—the heat stimulation to the leg–the “successful meditators, those who could tolerate greater levels of pain, were doing exactly the opposite in their brain from what experienced practitioners do. They were inhibiting sensory information, that somehow they were shifting their attention to ignore what was happening in the present moment. And that was giving rise to less suffering, inhibiting awareness rather than carefully attending to.

Those of you who teach recognize this as something that often happens when we start to practice. We accidentally end up doing exactly the opposite of what the practice is asking of us, and sometimes we experience what seems to be pretty good results. And I think studies like this can really give teachers insight in how the process is happening in the mind and in the brain so that we can better guide people through and beyond that.

Emotional Pain and Suffering

There are very similar studies that look at emotional pain rather than physical pain. They compare brand new meditators with experienced zen meditators in how they process emotionally evocative images that might trigger fear or that might trigger a kind of sense of distress and compassion.

What you’ll see is something very similar to the physical pain study. What you see is an area of the brain that became deactivated in the new meditators, the amygdala. This is kind of the first relay station of the emotional information. New meditators are tuning this off, turning this down, less emotional processing. When they are practicing mindfulness, they are not attending to the emotion of experience that is arising. They are actually inhibiting it.

Whereas in experienced meditators there’s no difference between when they are not practicing mindfulness and when they are practicing mindfulness. They’re basically keeping this channel open of attending to emotional experience. What they turn down is the inner commentary, the default network. Experienced meditators are deactivating that. New meditators are deactivating the actual direct experience of the emotions.

When people sit down in meditation, you don’t always know what’s going on up there. But studies like this can be very helpful in understanding what new meditators are doing. I show studies like this when I teach beginners. In a way it’s a little bit like a stick that wakes up sleeping practitioners, people who really had no idea what I was asking them to do with mindfulness. That they were going into this instinctive strategy of shutting things out rather than opening to them. They see brain pictures like this and it is almost like that koan, where suddenly we realize that there’s a gap between how we’re functioning in the world and how we might function in the world. Just that knowledge of that gap can allow us to progress in our practice.


The last study is a study that took people who were suffering in the way that we typically mean in the West. People who are depressed. This study randomly assigned adults who are moderately depressed into either an 8-week MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Training) or to a waitlist control. Then after the 8 week period, they exposed them to a number of film clips that were carefully chosen to just rip your heart wide open, to make you cry, to make you sad, to make you think about things in your own life that had happened.

After the 8-week mindfulness training, there was greater activation in regions of the brain that help control attention. The insula–the region of the brain that allows you to feel your emotions as they’re happening, the direct experience of emotions, not the stories–became more activated among the people who were trained in meditation. In the control group greater activation are in all the regions that are part of the default network. So when people who aren’t trained in meditation are exposed to sad stories, their own story machine, that machine of suffering, starts kicking in. Eight weeks of training and instead people are attending to their direct experience of emotions as they arise.

This is the finding that I think is really intriguing and that brings us back to the question of how do we end suffering. So the greater that the insula became activated while attending to things that make you sad, that is, the more practitioners were tending to the feelings of sadness, the more their depression decreased from before training to after training. So we’re seeing here a possible mechanism that mindfulness training allows us to actually open up to the experience of sadness and that itself is therapeutic and that you see reduced depression.

About Kelly McGonigal

Kelly McGonigal PhDKelly McGonigal, PhD, is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, and a leading expert in the new field of “science-help.” Her audio series The Neuroscience of Change (Sounds True 2012) weaves the newest findings of science with Eastern contemplative wisdom to give listeners a revolutionary process for personal transformation. She is also the author of Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind and Heal Your Pain (New Harbinger, 2009), which translates recent advances in neuroscience and medicine into mind-body strategies for relieving chronic pain, stress, depression, and anxiety.

Dr. McGonigal teaches for a wide range of programs at Stanford University, including the School of Medicine’s Health Improvement Program, the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, and the Graduate School of Business. Her psychology research has been published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, and The Journal of Happiness Studies.

Video c/o the Buddhist Geeks Conference


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[…] Kelly McGonigal, PhD, presents the latest findings from neuroscience on how meditation practice changes the brain, and offers fresh insight into concepts like mindfulness and suffering.  […]

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