Bridge over ocean
1 September 2015 CFA Institute Journal Review

The Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation (Digest Summary)

  1. Yaw Mante

Research over the past 20 years on mindfulness meditation generally shows that it leads to physical, mental, and cognitive benefits. The authors define mindfulness meditation as the nonjudgmental attention to present-moment experiences. They discuss what has been learned from the research and research methodological challenges this field faces. They also suggest new research strategies.

What’s Inside?

The authors identify key challenges to the research on mindfulness meditation. These stem from the focus on cross-sectional studies as opposed to controlled longitudinal studies, quality of research design (including effective control groups), and the relatively small sample sizes of these studies. They explain the core components of mindfulness meditation—attention control, emotion regulation, and self-awareness. The authors review key brain regions that studies show to be affected by mindfulness meditation. They then review what the existing research shows to be the impact of mindfulness meditation on each component and the related impact on specific brain regions. They find an overall positive effect of mindfulness meditation but argue that research methods can be improved to make findings more robust.

How Is This Research Useful to Practitioners?

Skills critical to investment decision making include objective decision making unclouded by distraction or emotion, so it is useful for you to evaluate the rigor of any technique that claims to enhance the quality of decision making if you want to apply it in practice. In this paper, the authors’ review of research studies that examine brain changes induced by mindfulness meditation and other meditation traditions highlights eight brain regions that were consistently altered by meditation: (1) the frontopolar cortex, likely related to enhanced meta-awareness following meditation practice; (2) sensory cortices and (3) insulae, areas related to body awareness; (4) the hippocampus, related to memory processes; (5) the anterior cingulate cortex, (6) the mid-cingulate cortex, and (7) the orbitofrontal cortex, which are related to self- and emotion regulation; and (8) the superior longitudinal fasciculus/corpus callosum, which is involved in intra- and inter-hemispherical communication. The authors also explore the core components of mindfulness meditation—attention control, emotion regulation, and self-awareness.

Attention includes alerting (readiness in preparation for an impending stimulus), orienting (selection of specific information from multiple sensory stimuli), and conflict monitoring (monitoring and resolving conflict between computations in different neural areas). The authors define emotion regulation as the strategies that can influence which emotions arise, when they arise, how long they occur, and how they are experienced and expressed. Emotion regulation has been suggested to be the basis of many of the beneficial effects of mindfulness meditation. Its core components are attentional deployment, cognitive change, and response modulation.

Regarding self-awareness, the authors explain that lowering self-referential processing and concurrently increasing awareness of present-moment experiences account for improving self-awareness. They conclude that their review of the available research shows a generally positive impact for meditators. The observed changes in specific brain regions are believed to corroborate the reported benefits of mindfulness meditation.

The authors suggest that to make findings from research on mindfulness meditation robust, future research should look into the underlying mechanisms that support the meditation-induced changes in brain structure and function. The authors believe that such knowledge would clarify whether there is a correlation or a causal relationship between mindfulness meditation and the observed changes in the brain.

Two key audiences will find this article useful—the general public and researchers focused on understanding the impact of meditation generally. For the general public, the article fully clarifies the core elements of what constitutes meditation practice and how to characterize the associated benefits of the practice in clear terms. For researchers, it clearly highlights gaps in research methodology and future requirements to make research findings more robust.

How Did the Authors Conduct This Research?

The authors review a wide range of research articles and surveys focused on mindfulness meditation and other meditation traditions over the past 20 years. A number of these studies also covered alterations in brain morphometry related to meditation. In all, more than 180 research articles and notes are reviewed or referenced by the authors.

Abstractor’s Viewpoint

Meditation has garnered high profile followers in the investment industry, including Ray Dalio, Dan Loeb, and Nigol Koulajian, and many followers advocate its ability to improve brain health, de-stress, and enhance effective decision making. This acceptance prompts curiosity about its intellectual objectivity and how it might be used by investment practitioners. This research article, although quite technical in its review and approach, manages to have an appeal to nonexperts because of the clear way that mindfulness meditation is explained. The framework the authors use to clarify mindfulness meditation also forms a framework for understanding how to approach meditation generally and what the expected benefits of meditation are. Readers from a broad range of backgrounds and career paths, including finance professionals, will find it a useful read.

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