How Meditation Works: Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity by David Webster and Aubree Kozie

When one sits down in one’s seat for meditation, often it is for the purpose of bringing stillness, quiet, and calm to both mind and body. 

But deep within the brain, your neurons are anything but still! When you meditate there are actually important brain processes underway which contribute to wellness and reduce severity of disease. 

Brain Function 101

An understanding of the brain on meditation requires a basic knowledge of brain function: think of the brain as millions of pathways made of chains of brain cells. Each cell is like a link in the chain which passes information from one to the next like a precise and intricate game of telephone. When new information is discovered and utilized, the brain forms new chains linking various areas of the brain. As information is passed repeatedly along a specific chain or pathway in the brain, it fortifies and strengthens that link for future use. This is why learning something new can take more brain power, attention, and focus, but over time, well-learned things become automatic, second nature, or “muscle memory.”

The brain’s ability to continually change and adapt to new information by forming and strengthening fresh pathways is called neuroplasticity. While small changes in neuroplasticity may result in small changes in cognition and behavior, over time, repeated use of the same pathways can lead to major changes in brain function. In other words, how we use our brain affects its function and our brain’s function also affects how we use our brain. 

Your Brain on Mindfulness Meditation

When one sits down to meditate, you begin to engage your brain in cognitive and behavioral processes you might not otherwise slow down for regularly. 

You breathe deep, draw yourself into the present moment, and observe. For those of us (let’s be honest, most of us) who often spend their days in the past thinking about what has happened or in the future thinking about what is going to happen, this requires engaging a different neural pathway than the one we default to in daily life. 

As we sit in meditation, we also induce the relaxation response and the parasympathetic nervous system, shifting the body into a place of rest and rejuvenation.

These two actions serve to induce some major shifts in brain plasticity and overall well being. Bringing yourself into a place of present moment observation helps program the brain to be more present and mindful, less reactive and impulsive. This process trains the brain to find a moment of pause (like a mini meditation) more often in regular life, and to be more resilient to stress. 

Giving the nervous system time to rest regularly in meditation also sends the message to the body that your environment is safe and secure, reducing stress and initiating immune responses which maintain health and wellness. 

The physical effects of this include reduced chronic inflammation and ultimately lower risk for chronic illness as a result. 

Your Brain on Mantra Meditation

Mantra meditation also serves to reprogram the brain, just in a slightly more applied way than meditations which involve solely clearing the mind and focusing on the present moment. 

Mantra meditation involves repeating a sound, word, or phrase with the rise and fall of the breath. Repeating a mantra actually strengthens the message of the mantra in the brain, committing it not only to memory  but actually forming and strengthening a neural pathway for that mantra in the brain. For instance, compassion meditation has been shown to strengthen brain connectivity in areas associated with both empathy and positive feelings. Emotionally, mantra functions via associative network theory, which holds that words generate either positive or negative feelings. 

When a mantra is repeatedly paired with a state of calm and peacefulness, it becomes associated with positive memories which are more easily accessed when the mantra is repeated during moments of stress. Thus repeated meditation with a mantra can help program the brain so that that mantra is actually a sort of emotional medicine when you need it most. 


The idea that the mind is “still” during meditation is highly anecdotal. However, deep within the mind the reality is that while you meditate, your brain is in a process of transformation. Mindfulness practices like meditation help teach the body the art of stress management and bolster emotional resilience. So next time you meditate, know your mind is busy strengthening and growing pathways which support wellness not only in this moment, but which also prevent future disease. 


Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., … & Sheridan, J. F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic medicine, 65(4), 564-570.

Travis, F., Haaga, D. A., Hagelin, J., Tanner, M., Nidich, S., Gaylord-King, C., … & Schneider, R. H. (2009). Effects of Transcendental Meditation practice on brain functioning and stress reactivity in college students. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 71(2), 170-176.

Hasenkamp, W., & Barsalou, L. W. (2012). Effects of meditation experience on functional connectivity of distributed brain networks. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 6, 38.

Hasenkamp, W., & Barsalou, L. W. (2012). Effects of meditation experience on functional connectivity of distributed brain networks. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 6, 38.

Engström, M., & Söderfeldt, B. (2010). Brain activation during compassion meditation: a case study. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16(5), 597-599.

Staples, J. K. The Science of Mantra.

Leave a Comment

Get one-month FREE access to our online yoga membership site.

Sign up to our mailing list to get one month free (Value $97)

We guard your privacy and will not sell/share your personal information.
We will contact you with information related of things of interest on an occasional basis.
To read our Privacy Policy Click here