The Neuroscience of Mindfulness & Anxiety

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20 Responses

  1. Jay Uhdinger says:

    Excellent article Matthew! 🙂

  2. Shawn Gravel says:

    Beautfully articulated! I love that you posted the graphics of the simplfied ‘map’ of the brain. The analogy helped bring simplicity to something esoteric and complex. Thank you 🙂 <3

    • Thank you! I really appreciate you reading the article and providing feedback. You hit the nail on the head; these topics are immensely complex and could (and do) fill many textbooks with the details. My approach to this article was to try to distill the information down so that it was easily understandable and useful for the reader. Thanks again!
      ~ Matthew

  3. Nice post. Well written and easy to understand for an armchair scientist and meditator curious about the biology underneath. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks George, I’m so glad that you enjoyed this post! All of my posts are geared towards the armchair scientists because this material should be accessible to all. I appreciate your support!

  4. Max Savery says:

    This has inspired me to do my project this quarter on the neuroscience of different emotional states in the moment. Mucho gracias.

  5. p.som says:

    excellent article.

  6. a j mnarr says:

    I hope you do not mind this new interpretation of anxiety and mindfulness that is ironically not new at all. It’s basis is on neuroscience as well, but stresses on neurologically informed learning theory, which differs in emphasis from your mainly neurological argument. (and no, the vagus nerve has nothing to do with it!)

    As you know, mindfulness, or present moment or ‘choice less’ awareness is associated with a radical reduction in somatic arousal, or a state or relaxation or resting. The logical inference follows that having a lifestyle full of choices is associated with a state of tension or anxiety. The problem is that such stressful reactions are commonly attributed to ‘demand’ or ‘threat’, not choice.

    The only model in psychology that links choice to tension and anxiety is the Dollard and Miller theory of anxiety posited in the 1950’s. This theory, which is still influential in psychology today, posits that tension and anxiety occur as learnable ‘drives’ that speed avoidance from perseverative and insoluble choice conflicts as represented by rumination and worry. It follows that eliminate choice conflict and a state of relaxation will occur. That prediction predates mindfulness and anchors the defining element of mindfulness firmly to learning theory.

    The ‘drive’ model that Dollard and Miller used was influenced by the psychodynamic theory of Freud, but drive concepts are largely discounted today in modern bio-behavioral learning theory. The question is whether present day neurally informed models of incentive motivation would make the same predictions that in effect not only confirm the efficacy of mindfulness, but explain it.

    The answer I believe is yes. Below is a link to a small book written in two parts for lay and academic audiences that explains mindfulness simply as well as provides a contrarian interpretation of stress. The newly revised book (the lay part takes about twenty minutes to read) is highly influenced by the work of the distinguished neuro-psychologist Kent Berridge of the University of Michigan, who was kind to vet the book for error and endorse the resulting work.

    You may find it worthy of comment, but it is certainly I hope worthy of criticism and test, and that above all is the point of science.


    Art Marr

    • Very interesting Art! Thanks for reading and I appreciate the discussion! What an interesting historical perspective. I’ll have to check out the book, thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  7. Gillian says:

    Thanks for the informative site Matthew, I love that you use analogies, I find that very helpful.

  8. Fantastic! This inspires me to practice meditation again.

  9. a j mnarr says:

    Presented below is a brief argument that the problem with meditation research is not that is not asking enough questions, but the right questions.

    What Mindfulness Research Neglects

    Mindfulness is defined as non-judgmental or choice-less awareness. Choices in turn may be divided into non-perseverative choices (what to have for breakfast, what route to take to go home, or choices with no dilemmas) and perseverative choices (worries, distractions, and rumination, or mental dilemmas wherein every alternative is bad). All meditative procedures, including mindfulness, avoid both.

    The consistent avoidance of perseverative choice alone represents resting protocols, wherein the neuro-muscular activity is sharply reduced. In other words, when we want to be relaxed we isolate ourselves from distractive and worrisome events and thoughts. These states in turn correlate with increased levels of endogenous opioids or ‘endorphins’ in the brain. The benefits of this are manifest, as the sustained increase of endogenous opioids down regulates opioid receptors, and thus inhibits the salience or reward value of other substances (food, alcohol, drugs) that otherwise increase opioid levels, and therefore reduces cravings, as well as mitigating our sensitivity to pain. Profound relaxation also inhibits muscular tension and its concomitant discomfort. In this way, relaxation causes pleasure, enhances self-control, counteracts and inhibits stress, reduces pain, and provides for a feeling of satisfaction and equanimity that is the hallmark of the so-called meditative state.

    It may be deduced therefore that meditative states are primarily resting states, and that meditative procedures over-prescribe the cognitive operations that may be altered to provide its salutary benefits (that is, you just need to avoid perseverative choices, not all choices), and that meditation as a concept must be redefined.

    Finally, the objective measurement of neuro-muscular activity and its neuro-chemical correlates (long established in the academic literature on resting states) is in general ignored by the academic literature on mindfulness, which is primarily based upon self-reports and neurological measures (fMRI) that cannot account for these facts. The problem with mindfulness research is therefore not theoretical, but empirical, and until it clearly accounts for all relevant observables for brain and body, the concept will never be fully explained.

    More of this argument, including references, below including a link to the first study (published this year) that has discovered the presence of opioid activity due to mindfulness practice, as well as the 1988 Holmes paper which provided the most extensive argument to date that meditation was rest.

  10. a j mnarr says:

    A New Variant of Mindfulness From The Perspective of Affective Neuroscience (and yes, mindfulness should rule the world!!)

    Here a new variant of mindfulness, which I call ‘mindfulness with meaning’. It is derived from the work of the distinguished affective neuroscientist Dr. Kent Berridge of the University of Michigan, who has vetted and endorsed my argument. The procedure that follows in the linked little book below (pp. 24, 28, 40-42), is novel, short, succinct, simple and easily testable.

    The book is written in two parts, for a lay and professional audience, and contains links to articles published in professional journals by this author that further elaborate my position. Since the procedure is simple and innocuous, you may prove its efficacy to yourself through personal trial quite easily. This would reduce the risk of a null result if you applied it clinically, which as with all new hypotheses, is a distinct possibility.

    Below is my argument in a nutshell:

    Individuals who engage in tasks in which they perceive a consistent and high degree of present and anticipated novel and positive outcomes or ‘meaning’ (e.g. sporting events, creative activity, doing productive work) commonly report a feeling of high alertness and arousal that may be construed to be due to the activation of mid-brain dopamine systems. However, a significant subset of these individuals also report a feeling of pleasure that is characteristic of opioid release, but these reports occur only in non-stressed situations when the musculature is relaxed. Since relaxation engages opioid systems in the brain, and because opioid and dopamine systems stimulate each other, the resulting blissful states require the simultaneous engagement of resting protocols and meaningful cognitive states, behaviors that are very easily achieved. In this way, which engages both mindfulness and an active sense of meaning, both dopamine and opioid release can be increased in the brain, and dramatically increase the efficacy of mindfulness.

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