Toward a brain theory of meditation

Prog Brain Res. 2019;244:207-232. doi: 10.1016/bs.pbr.2018.10.028. Epub 2019 Jan 3.


The rapidly progressing science of meditation has led to insights about the neural correlates of focused attention meditation (FAM), open monitoring meditation (OMM), compassion meditation (CM) and loving kindness meditation (LKM), in terms of states and traits. However, a unified theoretical understanding of the brain mechanisms involved in meditation-related functions, including mindfulness, is lacking. After reviewing the main forms of meditation and their relationships, the major brain networks and brain states, as well as influential theoretical views of consciousness, we outline a Brain Theory of Meditation (BTM). BTM takes the lead from considerations about the roles of the major brain networks, i.e., the central executive, salience and default mode networks, and their interplay, in meditation, and from an essential energetic limitation of the human brain, such that only up to 1% of the neurons in the cortex can be concurrently activated. The development of the theory is also guided by our neuroscientific studies with the outstanding participation of Theravada Buddhist monks, with other relevant findings in literature. BTM suggests mechanisms for the different forms of meditation, with the down-regulation of brain network activities in FAM, the gating and tuning of network coupling in OMM, and state-related up-regulation effects in CM and LKM. The theory also advances a leftward asymmetry in top-down regulation, and an enhanced inter-hemispheric integration, in meditation states and traits, also with implications for a theoretical understanding of conscious access. Meditation thus provides a meta-function for an efficient brain/mind regulation, and a flexible allocation of highly limited and often constrained (e.g., by negative emotion and mind wandering) brain activity resources, which can be related to mindfulness. Finally, a series of experimental predictions is derived from the theory.

Keywords: Attention; Brain network; Consciousness; Meditation; Mindfulness; Neuroplasticity; Theory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Attention*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Humans
  • Mindfulness*
  • Models, Neurological*