Cognitive Neuroscience of Mindful Meditation

Today I had the pleasure of watching Phillippe Goldin’s presentation on “Cognative Neuroscience of Mindful Meditation” that was delivered at Google in Feb’08. Phillippe is a qualified clinical psychologist/psychotherapist and neuroscientist. His presentation covered the topics of Attention, Mindfulness and Brain Systems.
What I enjoyed most about Phillippe’s presentation was his ability to codify through western science and research the experiences that I and many other mindfulness practitioners have shared. Perhaps even more impressive is that Phillippe went beyond research and actually practiced meditation to develop insight into the fluidity of self.
The presentation starts by Phillippe declaring that there are many different types of meditation practice. Phillippe categorises these practices into the following: 1. Concentration meditation (ie. Breath & Body sensation, Image/visualisation, Sound/mantra), 2. Analytic-linguistic-reasoning meditation (ie. Birth, death, loving-kindness) & 3. Emptiness/Shunyata Meditation (ie. Dissolving mistaken view of nature of self).
Phillippe then outlines how mindfulness has infiltrated the medical fraternity with the acceptance of the following clinically accepted practices: Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Dialectic Behavior Therapy (DBT). Phillippe’s MBSR research focuses on stress reactivity, pain, anxiety, & depressive symptoms.
Next, Phillippe defines mindfulness from a psychological perspective by defining Attention (via alerting, re-orienting & executive control), Purpose (via intention & motivation), Present moment (via Avoiding avoiding now & experiential approach) and Attitude (via acceptance & curiosity). This definition is supported with a process model that outlines how we start with an intention (ie. Stress reduction, increase well-being, self exploration etc).This intention leads to the activity of following the breath. This activity focuses on the attention attributes of concentration, open awareness, calm and flow. Inevitably when we follow the breath we experience the distraction activity. This activity focuses on the attention attributes of Rumination/worry, Mindless wondering, Fantasising, Dozing/Lethargy. The next activity is to regain Attentional focus. This activity focuses on the attitude attributes of self-judgment, self-criticism, kindness and curiosity.
After explaining the theory of mindfulness, Phillippe starts to present his research. He presents the audience with background data on Social Anxiety Disorder. He claims that there is a 12.1% lifetime prevalence of this condition in the US. Furthermore, it is the 3rd most common psychiatric disorder. He shares that this condition has an early onset with 80% of cases begin before the age of 18 and usually precedes the development of depression, substance abuse and other anxiety disorders. He then explores a scenario of an employee unable to speak at a company event. He takes the scenario and then examines it using the cognitive Processing model. The model starts with a given social situation (eg. Employee unable to deliver speech) which is following by a Distorted view of self. This state is then followed by Appraising the situation as dangerous. The next state is an Attentional shift to self-focused processing. The result of this process is Safety behaviour and Somatic & Cognitive symptoms.
Phillippe then takes us under the skull and examines the social situation using a neuroanatomical model of emotional reactivity and regulation. He describes how the social situation transitions to an Affective state of fear, anxiety and arousal in the Emotional Reactivity Limbic System. Next there is a transition to the Regulatory Cortical System. In the Regulatory Cortical System we identify and then execute regulatory strategies which may increase or decrease the current emotional state as we transition back to the Affective state. The execution and effectiveness of these regulatory strategies are mediated by how we view ourselves.
In the research study, Phillippe used 15 subjects who suffer from social phobia. Those individuals were then subjected to a social situation where their Reactivity to Negative Self-Belief and an Implement Regulation Strategy was measured. As part of the mindfulness training the subjects were taught the following types of strategies: 1. Attentional Focusing (shift attention to the physical sensation of breath), 2. Attentional Distraction (count backwards from 168 by 1), and 3. Cognitive Reappraisal (Re-interpret the meaning of belief). The results were then compared pre and post the 2 month mindfulness training. The results indicate a significant ability of the subject to regulate their emotions upon experiencing a negative social situation after the mindfulness training completed.

Phillippe explains these results through mindfulness causing a reduction in neural bases of analytic/narrative self. That is, there was a reduction in thinking, maintaining a concept of self and self-focused attention dropped. Hence, the subjects transitioned from a narrative fixed concept of self to a more embodied notion of self.


Note, Insight Meditation (aka Vipassana) is a single practice that covers the three meditation categories that Phillippe outlines above. Mindfulness is like an awareness-oriented sense organ that gets developed through the Insight Meditation practice. An Insight Meditation practice is typically defined by the following elements: Attitude, Structure, Process, Problem remedies & Distraction remedies. The goal of Insight Meditation & Mindfulness is to know the mind, shape the mind and then free the mind.

Posted on 1:52 PM by ash and filed under , , , | 3 Comments »


sadhu44 said... @ December 15, 2009 at 3:48 AM

Some years ago there were similar claims of the efficacy of transcendental meditation (TM). Even today, the TM web site lists some 600 scientific papers and reviews ( However, it should be noted that Herbert Benson, MD, demonstrated similar results with the plain English mantram, “one” (or “nine”) instead of the exotic Sanskrit version.

My question: Are there any studies (outcome, fMRI, etc.) that compare mindfulness with concentration medition?

I would define the two types of medtations functioally. Assume a meditator has, as a primary object of meditation, a mantram, kasina or mandala, sound, visualization, emptiness, imagining or repeating thoughts of loving-kindness, etc.

If, during the focussing on the object, a distraction arises (either external to the meditator or within her own mind) the meditator immediately returns to the primary meditative object, then this is concentration.

If, however, the distraction itself becomes a new object to become aware of, investigated and explored--and when it subsides, she returns to the primary object--then one is practicing insight, sati, or vipassana meditation.

(Insight meditation is very thoroghly described by the Buddha in the Satipatthana Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya no. 10, or Digha Nikaya no. 16.)

BTW, I would strongly disagree with the statement: “Insight Meditation (aka Vipassana) is a single practice that covers the three meditation categories that Phillippe outlines above.”

-S. Upatissa

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