Looking under the hood with fMRI, scientists have found that mindfulness meditation activates a network of brain regions that includes the insula (associated with compassion, empathy and self-awareness), the putamen (learning) and portions of the anterior cingulate cortex (regulating blood pressure, heart rate and other autonomic functions) and the prefrontal cortex (the hub of higher-order thinking skills such as planning, decision-making and moderating social behaviour).
When it comes to actual structural changes in the brain, some studies suggest that mindfulness meditation may increase grey matter density in the hippocampus, a brain region essential to memory. Researchers including Britta Hölzel, now at the Technical University of Munich, and Sara Lazar of Massachusetts General Hospital found evidence for this in a 2011 study.
Two studies by Creswell and his colleagues, one in 2015 and the other in 2016, offer some initial findings that seem to support their view of mindfulness meditation as a buffer against stress. Both studies focused on the physiological effects of mindfulness mediation training on small groups of unemployed adults experiencing stress.