Brain Changes in Experienced Meditators: Mitigating Anxiety through Default Mode Network Modulation

Meditation practice has gained substantial attention in modern neuroscience due to its pronounced impact on brain structure and function. Neuroscientific is now replete with literature on the effects of long-term meditation, focusing on changes in the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN) and implications of these changes for anxiety reduction. The DMN, a network of brain regions more active during rest than during task-oriented activities, has been linked to self-referential thinking and mind-wandering, both of which are often heightened in individuals with anxiety disorders. Evidence suggests that experienced meditators exhibit altered DMN activity, potentially leading to decreased anxiety symptoms.

The practice of meditation, particularly mindfulness-based techniques, has been associated with a myriad of health benefits, including stress reduction, improved attention, and enhanced well-being. Recent neuroimaging studies have begun to elucidate the neural mechanisms underlying these benefits, revealing significant changes in brain structure and function in experienced meditators. One of the most intriguing findings is the modulation of the Default Mode Network (DMN), a network implicated in self-referential thinking and mind-wandering, both of which are often dysregulated in anxiety disorders.

Default Mode Network and Anxiety

The DMN, consisting of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), and angular gyrus, among other regions, is more active during rest and less so during task-oriented activities. In individuals with anxiety disorders, the DMN is often hyperactive, leading to excessive self-referential thinking and worry. This hyperactivity is thought to contribute to the persistent and intrusive thoughts characteristic of anxiety disorders.

Meditation and the Default Mode Network

Neuroimaging studies have shown that experienced meditators exhibit different patterns of DMN activity compared to non-meditators. Specifically, meditators show decreased activity in the DMN during meditation, suggesting a reduction in self-referential thinking and mind-wandering. Furthermore, meditators exhibit increased connectivity between the DMN and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), a region involved in executive control. This increased connectivity may allow for better regulation of DMN activity, leading to a reduction in anxiety symptoms.

The practice of meditation appears to induce changes in the brain’s Default Mode Network, potentially mitigating anxiety by tempering the network’s activity. These findings provide a neuroscientific basis for the anxiety-reducing effects of meditation and suggest that meditation could be a valuable tool in the treatment of anxiety disorders. However, more research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms underlying these changes and to optimize meditation-based interventions for anxiety.

Relevant Scientific Studies

Here are references to a few scientific articles that support the points articulated above:

  1. An improved neuroanatomical model of the default-mode network reconciles previous neuroimaging and neuropathological findings by Pedro N Alves et al. This paper proposes a comprehensive neuroanatomical model of the DMN, including subcortical structures. It suggests that the thalamus and basal forebrain are central to the functioning of the DMN. Full Text
  2. Alterations in Brain Structure and Amplitude of Low-frequency after 8 weeks of Mindfulness Meditation Training in Meditation-Naïve Subjects by Chuan-Chih Yang et al. This study found overlapping structural and functional effects in the precuneus, a posterior DMN region, after 40 days of mindfulness meditation training in novices. The changes were associated with a reduction in depression scores. Full Text
  3. Altered Default Mode Network and Salience Network Functional Connectivity in Patients with Generalized Anxiety Disorders: An ICA-Based Resting-State fMRI Study by Hang Xiong et al. This study found that the functional connectivity of the DMN and SN may be abnormal in patients with generalized anxiety disorders, suggesting that these aberrations may contribute to the pathophysiology of GAD. Full Text

Psychotherapy, Buddhist Philosophy, and Conditioned Reality

The principal aim of psychotherapy aligns with Buddhist philosophy in facilitating deconstruction of learned conditioning, thus shepherding a return to the unconditioned state of being that we each entered life with – a state that may be construed as “pure awareness.” Effective psychotherapy helps patients realize the insubstantial nature of their conditioned existence, thereby mitigating attachment to thought-driven notions, interpretations, and expectations.

Reality Attunement Therapy and Buddhist philosophy share common ground in their recognition of the power of learned conditioning in shaping perceptions of reality. Psychotherapy’s primary goal is to help patients unravel their learned conditioning, thereby helping them return to an unconditioned state of being that mirrors Buddhist teachings around the idea of “ultimate reality.”

Bridging Psychotherapy and Buddhist Philosophy

In psychotherapy, there is a growing acceptance of the idea that our learned conditioning shapes our understanding of reality. Conditioning, in this sense, refers to our accumulated experiences, beliefs, and social-cultural factors that shape our responses and interpretations of the world around us. This idea resonates with the Buddhist differentiation between conceptual or conditioned reality (sammuti-sacca) and ultimate reality (paramattha-sacca), which transcends these conditioned experiences and is unchangingly present.

The therapeutic process underlying our Reality Attunement Therapy aims to facilitate the patient’s insight into their conditioned patterns of response, thereby facilitating a return to an unconditioned state of being. In parallel, Buddhist philosophy asserts that ultimate reality is always accessible, encouraging us to recognize and let go of our attachments to conditioned reality.

Psychotherapy and the Deconstruction of Conditioned Reality

Effective psychotherapy helps patients decipher and release their learned conditioning, which often manifests as rigid thought patterns, interpretations, and expectations. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), for instance, equips patients with tools to identify and challenge maladaptive thought patterns. Similarly, mindfulness-based therapies, such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), encourage patients to adopt a non-judgmental stance towards their thoughts and emotions, helping them recognize the transient nature of these experiences.

Reconnection to the Unconditioned Self

By illuminating the insubstantial nature of conditioned reality, psychotherapy can facilitate reconnection to an unconditioned state of being, which may be characterized as “pure awareness.” This awareness is non-judgmental, accepting, and present-focused – characteristics that align with the mindful awareness cultivated in Buddhist practices.


The overarching goal of psychotherapy aligns closely with principles of Buddhist philosophy, particularly the differentiation between conditioned and unconditioned reality. The therapeutic process enables patients to deconstruct their learned conditioning and reconnect with a state of pure awareness, thereby promoting mental well-being and a more authentic connection with the self and the world.

The Confluence of Buddhist Psychology and Neuroscience: An Exploration of Efficacy and Integration

Buddhist psychology, with its millennia-old philosophical underpinnings, and neuroscience, with its contemporary empirical evidence, may seem worlds apart at first glance. However, over the past few decades, these two distinct yet intertwined disciplines have become increasingly interconnected. This article explores the fundamental tenets of Buddhist psychology and discusses how neuroscience has substantiated the efficacy of these principles in the field of mental health.

Understanding Buddhist Psychology

The core of Buddhist psychology lies in understanding the nature of mind and human experience. It offers a different perspective from Western psychology, focusing on alleviating suffering through cultivating awareness, acceptance, and compassion.

  1. The Three Marks of Existence: The foundation of Buddhist psychology rests on three fundamental characteristics of existence – impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and the non-self (anatta). These principles offer profound insights into the transitory nature of experiences, the inevitability of suffering, and the illusion of an independent, unchanging self.
  2. Mindfulness: At the heart of Buddhist psychology is the practice of mindfulness – paying attention to the present moment experiences with non-judgmental awareness. This practice fosters mental clarity and a deeper understanding of one’s thoughts, emotions, and reactions.
  3. The Four Noble Truths: These truths elucidate the nature of suffering, its origin, cessation, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering.

The Efficacy of Buddhist Psychology: Insights from Neuroscience

In recent years, neuroscience has provided compelling evidence for the efficacy of Buddhist psychology, primarily through investigations of mindfulness and meditation practices.

  1. Neuroplasticity and Mindfulness: Mindfulness practices have been shown to induce neuroplastic changes in the brain’s structure and function. For instance, studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have shown that long-term mindfulness practitioners exhibit increased cortical thickness in brain areas related to attention, interoception, and sensory processing.
  2. Emotional Regulation and Compassion: Research has also demonstrated that practices like loving-kindness meditation (metta) can enhance emotional regulation and empathy. Neuroimaging studies indicate that these practices activate areas in the brain associated with positive affect and social bonding, such as the anterior insula and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.
  3. Cognitive Flexibility: The practice of mindfulness has been found to enhance cognitive flexibility, reducing cognitive biases and automatic behaviors. This is supported by neuroscientific findings indicating changes in the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex, regions associated with executive function.
  4. Reduced Stress and Anxiety: Neuroscience has also substantiated the stress-reducing effects of mindfulness, showing changes in the amygdala – the part of the brain involved in processing emotional reactions – following mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programs.

In short, the convergence of Buddhist psychology and neuroscience provides a powerful framework for understanding the mind and alleviating suffering. The philosophically rich and introspective nature of Buddhist psychology, coupled with the empirical robustness of neuroscience, offers an integrative approach to mental health. This synergy continues to deepen our understanding of human cognition and emotion, paving the way for novel therapeutic interventions.

Meditation: A Misunderstood Practice of Mindfulness, Not Mindlessness

In popular culture, meditation is often misconstrued as a practice aimed at ‘stopping thought’. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Meditation is not about suppressing or eliminating thoughts but understanding their true nature: they are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not self. This article aims to dispel this misconception and shed light on the genuine purpose and benefits of meditation.

Understanding the Nature of Thoughts

First, it’s vital to understand that our minds are naturally designed to think, analyze, and ponder. Just as the heart’s job is to pump blood, the brain’s job is to generate thoughts. Attempting to stop thoughts during meditation is akin to asking your heart to stop beating—it goes against its inherent nature.

Instead, meditation invites us to observe our thoughts without judgment or resistance. As we sit quietly, we can recognize that thoughts come and go of their own accord. In this light, we appreciate their impermanence. What seems of paramount importance in one moment becomes trivial the next, swept away by the river of consciousness.

Encountering Dukkha

In Buddhism, the term ‘Dukkha’ is often used to describe the unsatisfactory nature of life experiences. When applied to thoughts, it emphasizes their inability to provide lasting satisfaction or happiness. We may feel a temporary sense of relief or achievement when a problem is resolved, but soon enough, another thought or concern replaces it. Meditation allows us to see this cycle of Dukkha in our thought processes, fostering a detachment from the perpetual pursuit of ‘problem-solving’ as a means of attaining happiness.

Anatta: The Not-Self Characteristic

In the context of thoughts, the Buddhist concept of ‘Anatta’ or ‘not-self’ can be incredibly liberating. Meditation illuminates the fact that our thoughts are not who we are—they don’t define us. Just because we have a thought doesn’t make it a reality, nor does it form our identity. By observing our thoughts as separate entities that visit our conscious awareness, we begin to realize that we are not our thoughts. This understanding can lead to profound inner peace and freedom from self-imposed limitations.

Meditation: The Art of Observing

In meditation, we cultivate the ability to witness our thoughts as they arise, exist, and pass away. By doing so, we learn to relate to our thoughts differently. We can observe them, learn from them, but not get swept away by their current. This non-reactive awareness allows us to respond to life situations more skillfully, leading to increased clarity, calmness, and emotional resilience.

In conclusion, meditation isn’t about ‘stopping thought’—it’s about understanding the nature of thoughts. It’s a journey of self-discovery and fostering mindfulness, guiding us to live more fully in the present moment. By dispelling the myth of thought cessation, we can more genuinely appreciate the value of meditation and use it as a tool to navigate the landscape of our minds.

The Interplay of Mindfulness, Neuroscience, and Behavior: A Buddhist Perspective on the Limbic System and Anxiety Reduction

The ancient Buddhist practice of mindfulness, over recent decades, has gradually worked its way into mainstream psychological discourse. This integration is primarily because of the mounting empirical evidence supporting its therapeutic benefits in managing mental health issues, including anxiety and stress disorders. This article delves into the neurobiological underpinnings of mindfulness, focusing on its impact on the limbic system and the ‘seek and reward’ motivational systems.

The Limbic System: The Crux of Emotion and Motivation

At the heart of the brain, enveloping the brain stem, resides the limbic system. This complex network of structures plays a pivotal role in human emotions, memory, and motivation. Among the many mechanisms controlled by the limbic system, the ‘seek and reward’ motivational systems are paramount. These systems involve neurotransmitters such as dopamine and acetylcholine, which govern the brain’s response to reward, pleasure, motivation, and cognitive functions.

In typical circumstances, the brain releases dopamine as a response to potential or received rewards, fostering a sense of satisfaction and pleasure. This dopamine surge prompts individuals to repeat actions that bring about reward, fueling the cycle of seek and reward. Similarly, acetylcholine is involved in various brain functions like learning, memory, and arousal.

However, when these neurotransmitter systems are hyperactivated due to continuous goal-directed orientation, they may contribute to heightened stress levels, agitation, and anxiety. Unchecked, this constant seeking and striving can exacerbate a persistent state of dissatisfaction and unease.

Mindfulness and its Neurobiological Implications

Mindfulness, a key component of Buddhist practices, centers around fostering present-moment awareness, characterized by non-judgment, acceptance, and openness. It encourages individuals to attune themselves to their experiences in real-time, consciously distancing themselves from habitual, reflexive judgments, and reactions.

Research indicates that mindfulness practice can moderate the hyperactivation of the ‘seek and reward’ systems in the limbic brain. The mindfulness-induced shift from a ‘doing’ mode, characterized by goal-directed activities, to a ‘being’ mode, characterized by present-moment awareness, can mitigate the overstimulation of dopamine and acetylcholine circuits.

Neuroimaging studies have found that mindfulness practices can increase grey matter density in the prefrontal cortex, an area involved in executive function, and decrease it in the amygdala, a part of the limbic system that plays a critical role in processing emotional reactions. These changes indicate a reduction in emotional reactivity and an enhancement in emotion regulation capacity, respectively.

Furthermore, mindfulness has been linked with increased levels of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), an inhibitory neurotransmitter that can decrease anxiety and promote calmness. This modulation of neurotransmitters can potentially decelerate the incessant ‘seek and reward’ cycles and contribute to the restoration of neurochemical balance.

The Role of Mindfulness in Reducing Anxiety

Anxiety often arises from a preoccupation with future-oriented thoughts and a perceived need for constant action or preparation. The repetitive and compulsive nature of these thought patterns can fuel the ‘seek and reward’ systems, leading to excessive release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and acetylcholine.

Through the practice of mindfulness, individuals learn to cultivate a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. They learn to detach from the relentless pursuit of goals and the accompanying roller coaster of reward and disappointment. By doing so, mindfulness practice helps interrupt the persistent cycle of seeking and striving, which reduces the overstimulation of the limbic system, thereby alleviating anxiety.

Moreover, by fostering acceptance and awareness, mindfulness helps individuals recognize their anxiety triggers. It encourages them to view these triggers from a non-reactive perspective, empowering them to respond more effectively and compassionately to stressors.

While the integration of ancient wisdom with modern neuroscience is still a budding field, preliminary evidence substantiates the effectiveness of mindfulness in moderating the seek and reward systems of the limbic brain. As our understanding of the brain’s plasticity continues to evolve, we may uncover more about the interplay between mindfulness, neurobiology, and mental health. In the meantime, the ancient practice of mindfulness offers a potent tool to enhance our well-being and equanimity, mitigating the agitation and anxiety tied to persistent goal-directed orientation.

Non-Attachment and Dissociative Drugs

Exploring the Intersection of Glutamate Inhibition and Buddhist Non-Attachment

he study of consciousness and subjective experience bridges science and spirituality, often revealing profound insights about the nature of reality. In this context, the role of glutamate, a vital neurotransmitter, and its inhibition by the drug ketamine, provides an interesting perspective on the subjective experience of non-attachment, a key concept in Buddhism.

Glutamate Inhibition

Glutamate is the most abundant excitatory neurotransmitter in the nervous system, playing a crucial role in synaptic plasticity, memory formation, and learning. However, when excessively released, it can lead to a state of excitotoxicity and neuronal damage.

As an example, Ketamine, a dissociative anesthetic, primarily acts as an antagonist at the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor, a type of glutamate receptor. By inhibiting the NMDA receptor, ketamine disrupts glutamate signaling, leading to a decrease in neuronal excitation.

Ketamine’s Dissociative Effects and its Relation to Glutamate Inhibition

Ketamine’s hallmark dissociative effects result from this glutamate inhibition. In this state, a person may experience feelings of detachment from the self and the external environment, alterations in thoughts and perception, and an overall sense of disconnection.

It’s believed that these effects occur due to ketamine disrupting the default mode network (DMN), a network of brain regions that is active when the mind is at rest and not focused on the outside world. The DMN is thought to be associated with the construction of the self, and its disruption through the inhibition of glutamate could lead to a breakdown in the subjective sense of “self,” inducing a dissociative state.

Buddhist Concept of Non-Attachment and its Parallels to Ketamine-Induced Dissociation

In Buddhism, the concept of non-attachment refers to a state of freedom from desire, aversion, and ignorance. It involves a profound realization of the impermanence of the “self” and the external world, leading to a letting go of attachments and reduction in suffering.

In essence, non-attachment in Buddhism can be seen as a self-imposed, conscious form of dissociation, where the individual consciously detaches from the illusion of a separate self and the desire for material possessions.

The parallel between the dissociative effects of ketamine and the state of non-attachment can thus be drawn. Both involve a dissolution of the self, albeit through different means. While ketamine-induced dissociation is pharmacological, mediated by glutamate inhibition, the Buddhist practice of non-attachment is achieved through meditation and conscious realization.


This fascinating intersection of neuroscience and spirituality provides us with a unique lens through which we can understand and explore the nature of consciousness and subjective experience. While pharmacological interventions and spiritual practices seem worlds apart, their convergence on similar experiences suggests shared underlying processes, illuminating our journey towards understanding the human mind.

It is crucial to recognize the complexity of these phenomena, and that achieving a state of non-attachment should ideally be pursued through self-exploration, guided meditation, and introspection rather than drug-induced states. Nonetheless, these parallels between the effects of glutamate inhibition and the state of non-attachment open new avenues for scientific investigation and understanding of our conscious experience.