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The Science Behind Meditation in Beginners: Get Inspired

In this article we look at the science behind meditation, focusing on the benefits and effects it reveals in beginners.

As a long-term practitioner and meditation teacher, I’ve discussed meditation with many skeptics and scientifically-minded people. I know from experience that there’s still a tonne of doubt and incredulity when it comes to its power: “Is there any science behind meditation?” “What if we’re just making it up?”

It’s certainly true that you can’t trust everything you hear about this practice and should be skeptical about it.

But the benefits and effects are now undeniable. There is more and more top-quality science behind meditation, and it confirms the power of meditation for practitioners of all levels.

Meditation, particularly mindfulness, is now a serious clinical tool studied and implemented at the top medical institutions around the world.

I think it’s crucial to study the science behind meditation, especially when you’re a beginner. Knowing that these techniques have well-documented biological, psychological and neurological effects will help you get motivated and stay motivated during periods of low motivation.

Besides, one of the remarkable byproducts of our neuroscientific understanding of meditation is the ability it gives us to understand neuroplasticity.

The brain is not – we are not – fixed to be a certain way forever. It’s highly moldable. Meditation produces predictable neurological changes, which become more remarkable the more we practice. Think of it as a wand for wielding the power of neuroplasticity.

This is a guide to the best studies I’ve found on the science behind meditation. I’ve made it highly accessible to non-specialists while also including enough technical terms and nuance to keep it scientifically sound. You might like to come back to this article several times and save it as a reference for the future.

Table of Contents

    The Science Behind Meditation: Best Practices

    Before we talk about the science behind meditation, it’s crucial to realise that meditation is not new. It dates back thousands of years, way before modern science, and has been discovered and rediscovered over and over again.

    Among adepts, there’s little doubt that meditation brings remarkable subjective benefits and that these multiply as we practice.

    That said, science has turned its lens to meditation in the last fifty years, starting with Daniel Goleman, Richard Davidson, and others.

    The two continue to mate. The science behind meditation has multiplied exponentially – literally – since the 90s and 2000s. Hundreds of new studies are now published every year. There’s a tonne of solid science behind meditation at all levels of practice.

    But, as Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman say: “not everything chalked up to meditation’s magic actually stands up to rigorous tests.”

    Public knowledge of these studies is skewed. We often don’t hear about the most solid conclusions, and the ones we hear about through soundbites and adverts are either false or are far more nuanced than how they’re presented.

    And unsurprisingly, research data is often twisted or exaggerated to up its marketing power and boost sales. One popular app had to pay a large fine when government agencies challenged their claims.

    What’s more, studies on the science behind meditation are often poor-quality. To check the quality of studies on lovingkindness meditation, Richie Davidson’s research group took 231 reports on this technique, and only 37 met top design standards. That’s 16%: under 1 in 6.

    The studies often make a tonne of classic statistical errors, like lack of replication, lack of active control group to eliminate expectation effects and other factors, poor sample sizes, confusion in terminology, and experimenter bias.

    For example, much of research into TM has been done by staff at the organisation that oversees TM. This is a clear conflict of interest. Studies also tend to be short, meaning it’s tricky to make conclusions about long-term progression.

    And if you want, you can find plenty of studies that show no changes in the population studied.

    To be sure, there is top-class research out there, and its implications are remarkable. But I want to safeguard you against the soundbites and headlines, temper your expectations for your own practice, and encourage you to hold a scientific, objective mindset.

    The science behind meditation in this article is all backed by gold-standard studies, the cream of the crop in terms of design. If there are design flaws in a particular study, I’ll point them out.

    On the other hand, there is still much to be studied. Just like a few decades ago we were ignorant of the damage caused by smoking, we are still largely in the dark about the neurology and biology of meditation practice.

    The science behind meditation in beginners. Physiological, attentional and distress-related.

    The Science Behind Meditation: Glossary

    Refer to this glossary for the definitions of technical terms I use in this article on the science behind meditation. These appear in bold italics.

    Active Group: In an experiment or study, the active group is formed of participants who receive the main treatment. This group is then compared to the control group to establish changes and differences.

    Amygdala: Deep brain network responsible for evaluating threats and responding to them. It lights up when we’re exposed to someone who is experiencing negative emotions like fear or anger. If it perceives a threat or urgent situation, it engages the fight-or-flight response, setting off a stream of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. It’s also tied to centers for attention focusing and strong emotional reactions.

    Attentional Blink: From “When you shift your focus from one thing to another, a tiny gap in attention called attentional blink is created. It only lasts for about half a second, so we barely notice it.”

    Control group: Secondary group of participants in an experiment who are chosen to mimic the true group and provide meaningful comparison. Members of active control group receive similar treatment, and a waiting list control group consists of individuals who are on a waiting list to receive the primary treatment.

    Cytokine: Name for a group of proteins that signal immune cells to fight antibodies. Cytokine imbalance signals stress, burnout, emotional frailty and premature ageing.

    DMN: Default Mode Network. Area of brain responsible for mind wandering and rumination. It tends to activate when we’re not engaged in a task and other brain regions are inactive.

    fMRI: Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Brain imaging technology that uses blood flow to measure activity.

    MEG: Magnetoencephalography. Brain imaging technology that relies on the magentic fields created by electric currents in the brain.

    MBSR: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Eight-week programme in mindfulness designed primarily to reduce stress. Created by John Kabat-Zinn at the Stress Reduction Clinic. My eight-week Essential Mindfulness programme and my Meditation Tribe classes take inspiration from MBSR.

    MBCT: Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy: Extension of standard Cognitive Behavioural Therapy programme for sufferers of recurrent depression. Now the UK government’s recommended therapy for this issue.

    Natural-Killer Cells: White blood cells that tackle infected cells and tumour cells. Play important role in suppressing viruses and cancerous cells.

    PFC: Pre-Frontal Cortex. Area of the brain containing networks responsible for emotions, emotional resilience, perspective taking, impulse control, stress management, long-term planning, and gratification delay. Involved in every aspect of attention. Deeply connected to the limbic system, and can downregulate emotions via it.

    Stress Hardiness: Term coined by Dr. Suzanne Kobasa. Explains why different people handle similar stress levels differently. Stress-hardy people exhibit high levels of control, commitment and challenge, and see new situations as opportunities rather than threats.

    Sense of Coherence: Concept from Dr. Aaron Antonovsky that explains why we can handle extreme stress. Characterised by three components: ability to make sense of inner and outer experience, sense of having ability to manage demands on us, and belief that these demands are meaningful and worthy of commitment.

    The Science Behind Meditation and Beginners

    At the start of contemplative practice, little or nothing seems to change in us. After continued practice, we notice some changes in our way of being, but they come and go. Finally, as practice stabilizes, the changes are constant and enduring, with no fluctuation. They are altered traits.

    Richie Davidson and Daniel Goleman

    Subjects in meditation studies span a range of levels from beginners to long-term practitioners to yogis. These categories are determined by number of lifetime hours of practice and time spent on retreat.

    Since we’re focusing on beginners in this article, let’s make it clear what we mean by a beginner meditator.

    In these studies, a beginner is defined as somebody who has meditated for under 100 hours in total (100 hours is 30 minutes a day for 6-7 months), and as few as 7 hours (30 minutes a day for two weeks). The vast majority of Western meditators fall into this category, and they tend to practice mindfulness.

    You can compare a beginner with a long-term meditator, who has 1000 to 10,000 hours of practice, and a yogi-level practitioner, who has racked up even more, to better grasp what being a beginner means.

    Though 100 hours of meditation isn’t much, there is gold-standard science behind meditation at this level, and it reveals a swathe of benefits and effects.

    And there’s more good news – as we practice more, these benefits strengthen, new benefits appear, and we start to experience permanent changes.

    However, the use of active control groups has revealed that the positive expectations of beginners are behind many of the benefits they experience. That is to say, a kind of placebo effect takes place in the early stages.

    Another caveat is that the effects won’t last without practice. As per the above quote, the effects only stabilise in long-term practitioners and become permanent in adepts.

    But don’t worry – we look at high-quality studies, where the “placebo effect” of meditation is made null. That way we can see what meditation really does beyond what we think it does.

    Let’s get to the science behind meditation, starting with the physiological effects.

    The Science Behind Meditation: Physiological Effects

    The Relaxation Response

    Many people come to meditation to experience relaxation, relief from the stresses of life, or to feel better. Though meditation doesn’t guarantee you’ll feel a certain way or never have a bad day, I can definitely say that it transforms how you relate to life’s challenges. This is where the Relaxation Response comes in.

    The Relaxation Response is a state of low arousal, reduced blood pressure and lower oxygen consumption. You can think of it as the opposite of the fight-or-flight mode, our in-built animal response to perceived threats. We remain cool and centred in the midst of chaos.

    At Harvard in the 1970s, Dr Herbert Benson proved that Transcendental Meditation induces the Relaxation Response, and he coined the term for it. He also noticed that contemplative traditions all have a way of producing this response in practitioners.

    With meditation training, the Relaxation Response can become a home for us, no matter what is occuring at the time. We don’t need to be sitting quietly.

    Blood Pressure

    Dovetailing nicely with Benson’s work, let’s look briefly at a well-designed study on African-American men who were suffering from kidney disease. Note that African-Americans are particularly vulnerable to hypertension and cardiac disease.

    Just 14 minutes of mindfulness practice lowered the metabolic patterns that lead to these diseases. This is evidence of changes in blood pressure among a group of complete newbies.


    Meditation has also been found to help alleviate the common skin condition called psoriasis, which leaves the skin dry and flaky.

    According to the 2019 World Psoriasis survey, 1.7% of the UK population and 1.4% of high-income North America suffer from it.

    There are several potential causes of psoriasis, including genetics and lifestyle factors, like smoking, alcohol and stress. It also fluctuates according to several factors, including emotional wellbeing.

    In a 1998 study, psioriasis cleared four times more quickly in sufferers who practiced a blend of visualising and mindfulness while receiving treatment than it did in the control group. The meditating group only did these exercises during treatment, not at any other time.

    Though this psioriasis study had some design flaws, the results are intriguing. Why did meditating during treatment help to alleviate a skin condition? What does this tell us about the causes of psoriasis? Could mindfulness help alleviate other psychosomatic illnesses?

    Immune Response

    Meditation has also been shown to strengthen the immune system, which protects the body against harmful antibodies to prevent disease and illness. Natural-killer cells play a key role in immune response.

    And the immune system is affected by our wellbeing. Natural-killer activity drops during stressful life situations, including exams, loneliness, separation, divorce, and caring for loved ones, reducing our resistance to disease.

    Here’s where meditation comes in. Employees in a high-stress corporate setting who took an eight-week mindfulness course showed much higher antibody response to a flu jab than controls on a waiting list. This response correlated with the level of activity in their prefrontal cortices.

    These physiological changes are intriguing, and I’m excited to see what further research will unearth.

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    The Science Behind Meditation: Attention

    Let’s turn our attention to… attention itself. This is the key to almost all meditation – in it we train several core attention skills.

    This is no surprise. For millennia, sophisticated meditation systems the world over have documented the systematic training of attention through meditation. In all honesty, modern science is late to the party.

    I’ve written an entire article on how to use meditation to train the core attention skills, so check that out for practical methods.

    Many hundreds of attention studies have been done on mindfulness programmes, and unsurprisingly they’ve found a definite link between mindfulness and attention.

    The only caveat is that these improvements in attention require continual practice to maintain. But if we do, the effects are dramatic and life-altering, as studies on advanced yogis reveal.

    Selective Attention

    Our senses continually give us input in the form of sights, sounds, feelings, tastes and smells. If we were to be equally aware of all input at all times, we’d quickly become overwhelmed.

    This is where selective attention comes in. It enables us to tune out irrelevant inputs and focus on the relevant ones. It allows us to read our book in a crowded cafe, remain focused on our work in an office, and cross the road safely by focusing on the next car that’s approaching, rather than everything else around us.

    We naturally train selective attention in meditation. To hold our attention to an object of focus, such as the breath, our body or our thoughts, we have to bring it to the forefront of our attention and maintain it there while we receive other input. This is a basic feature of most meditation practices.

    So it’s no surprise that we have scientific evidence for meditation’s positive effect on selective attention.

    The neural circuitry for selective attention… can be trained—contrary to the standard wisdom where attention was assumed to be hardwired and so, beyond the reach of any training attempt.

    Richie Davidson and Daniel Goleman

    Amishi Jha, a leader in the field of contemplative neuroscience, did a rigorous study of how meditation affects attention. She found that novices trained in mindfulness showed significantly higher orienting, a key component of selective attention.

    And a research group at MIT used MEG to show the attention gains of participants in an eight-week mindfulness programme. They had a significantly higher ability to focus on specific body sensations: their skills had both improved over the course of the programme, and now trumped those of the control group.

    Goal Focus or Cognitive Control

    Goal focus, AKA cognitive control, is the ability to focus on specific goal and keep it in mind while resisting distractions. It’s similar to selective attention, and is the opposite of the state we enter during multitasking.

    In one study, volunteer undergrads did either three 10-minute sessions of breath counting or spent the time scrolling through internet sites.

    Those who meditated showed significant increases in attention skills on a range of tests, and the heavy multitaskers experienced the biggest gains.

    Though this was a temporary change, it helps us see that even short doses of meditation produce measurable changes.

    Attentional Blink

    For a long time, the attentional blink was considered to be hardwired. But studies on meditators have shown us otherwise.

    The attentional blink tends to get longer with age, but open-monitoring meditation, which involves moving our attention between various objects of focus, has been shown to reduce this effect.

    What’s more, temporary reductions in the attentional blink occur after only 17 minutes of open-monitoring practice.

    Vigilance: Maintaining Attention Over Time

    And finally, we come to what many of us call attention: the ability to maintain focus on a chosen sensory input over time. The technical term for this attention skill is vigilance, and we might call its opposite mind-wandering. Unsurprisingly, meditation improves this in beginners too.

    Researchers at the University of California had volunteers meditate on their breath for eight minutes and found this reduced how much their mind wandered later on, compared to controls who read a newspaper or relaxed.

    Those researchers also did a six-hour mindfulness programme with students, along with 10-minute sessions at home. This improved concentration and lessened mind-wandering, compared to a control group who studied nutrition instead.

    And we’ve found a neurological correlate for these effects in beginners.

    By measuring brain activity using fMRI, researchers at the University of Toronto found that participants in an eight-week mindfulness programme exhibited brain signatures of greater presence, lower mind-wandering and reduced self-narration.

    To be sure, meditating for eight minutes to a few dozen hours won’t bring permanent attention changes, but it’s encouraging that short doses temporarily boost so many facets of attention, and it begs the question of how attention changes in long-term and yogi-level meditators.

    Meditation trains other attention skills too, but for now let’s move to the psychological side.

    The Science Behind Meditation: Managing Distress

    This is the biggest category in this article, and though the word distress sounds medical and depressing, we all experience it. If not under extreme distress, we can still use the skills of meditation to help us through difficult periods, emotional storms and times of illness.

    Meditation has proven to be effective in managing stress, depression, anxiety, pain and loneliness. MBCT is now the UK government’s recommended treatment for patients who experience multiple bouts of depression. And The National Institutes of Health in America pump hundreds of millions of dollars into mindfulness research every year.

    My hunch: I like to think that meditation retrains us our stress circuitry. We become more resistant to it, experience it in a fundamentally different way, and stop unnecessarily creating it.

    Rest assured, meditation is a powerful antidote to distress, and we can all build our skills now for when we need them later.

    Emotional Regulation

    My experience: On more than one occasion I’ve been told I’m very “zen” and that I usually seem calm and collected. Though I do experience difficult emotions, I can definitely say that I’m now much better equipped to handle them than I ever was. This inevitably translates into my behaviour.

    And neurological changes found in beginner meditators back this up.

    Researchers from Harvard Medical School and Massachussets General Hospital found thickened grey matter in regions of brain related to emotional regulation and self-sense in participants of an eight-week mindfulness programme.

    They also found a thinning of the amygdala, and the degree of thinning correlated with scores on a perceived stress scale.

    In another study, at the University of Wisconsin, stressed corporate employees who completed a similar programme exhibited neurological signs of improved emotional intelligence and regulation, when compared to waiting-list controls. This persisted for four months after the programme.

    If you want to be more “zen”, maybe mindfulness is what you need.


    We shouldn’t be surprised that meditation positively impacts our levels of stress. This is almost common knowledge. What we might fail to realise is the scope of the science behind meditation and the fact that positive results have been repeatedly found in beginners.

    There is anecdotal, physiological and neurological evidence for the stress-reducing power of meditation on beginners.

    Let’s look at a selection of the best science behind meditation for treating stress:

    • Job-seekers given three days of intensive mindfulness training showed decrease in a key cytokine. The greater the increase in connectivity between the DMN and PFC, the greater the reductions in the cytokine.
    • Students in an eight-week mindfulness programme at Stanford University reported feeling less anxious. Activity increased in their neurological attention circuits, and they showed reduced amygdala activity when listening to emotionally charged sentences.
    • In lab-controlled stress test at the University of Wisconsin, the size of blisters induced in healthy mindfulness students were less than carefully matched active controls.
    • A small-but-significant increase in stress hardiness and sense of coherence has been repeatedly found in participants of eight-week mindfulness programmes. In follow-ups up to three years after the programme, levels are maintained or increased. The researchers who originally coined the terms considered these to be fixed traits.


    As you’ve seen in the glossary, there’s a clinical mindfulness programme that’s specifically designed for people with repeated bouts of depression. It’s called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, and it’s now the UK government’s recommended treatment for such patients. Let’s see why.

    Though many studies performed on MBCT don’t meet the gold standard required for clinical reserach, a metastudy at John Hopkins University analysed 47 studies on meditation – the 3% of all studies with top-quality design. Patients in these studies suffered from a range ailments including depression, pain, sleep problems and health problems.

    The researchers concluded that mindfulness is effective against anxiety, depression and pain, and found that mindfulness is as effective as medication but without the side-effects.

    In another study at Oxford University, 300 students with severe, medication-resistant depression were randomly assigned to an active group and a control group.

    The active group received a basic MBCT course, while the controls received standard psychiatric treatment. They were then tracked for six months.

    MBCT proved to be as effective as the psychiatric treatment and, for patients with childhood trauma, more effective.

    Is there a neurological basis for this? You bet. It seems that the insula plays a role.

    In another study, fMRI was used to compare patients who had previously recovered from severe depression. Some did MBCT, while others did standard CBT, or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The patients who showed the greatest increase in insula activity after treatment also had 35% fewer relapses.

    And on a crucial practical note – the biggest improvements were found in patients who were able to step outside their thoughts and feelings. And the more time they put into mindfulness practice, the lower their odds of relapse.


    In a collaboration between the Stress Reduction Clinic and Department of Psychiatryat UMass, 22 patients with a secondary diagnosis of Generalised Anxiety Disorder and/or panic disorder went through an eight-week mindfulness programme.

    The results were remarkable.

    Depression and anxiety dropped in nearly all participants, as did the frequency and severity of their panic attacks. In a three-month follow-up, they had maintained the improvement and were mostly free of panic attacks. And they kept it up – after three years, most still practiced meditation.

    There is one caveat – there was no randomised control group. But these patients were treated same as all other course participants to reduce expectation effects, the instructors were unaware of the study, and didn’t know of the patients’ diagnoses.


    Research on long-term meditators shows that much of our perceived pain is a result of how we experience painful sensations in our body. Pain is not a given.

    There’s also evidence that brief training in mindfulness can dramatically reduce ratings of discomfort and pain intensity and bring neurological changes.

    Mindfulness is highly effective in elderly people suffering from people. It reduces their perceived level of pain, which in turn reduces their level of disability.

    A meta-analysis on dozens of studies led Dutch researchers to concluding that mindfulness is a good alternative to medical treatments for pain. The other benefits are that you learn valuable skills you can apply to other areas of life, you can’t get addicted, and there are usually no side-effects.

    Reduced stress and subjective symptoms have also been found among fibromyalgia patients who received mindfulness treatment, with these effects increasing with hours of practice.

    Though we might not suffer chronic pain, we can all use mindfulness to better process our everyday physical and emotional pain, thus freeing ourselves from it.

    The Science Behind Meditation: Lovingkindness & Compassion

    Finally, let’s look at the remarkable research into lovingkindness and compassion practices.

    In this context, lovingkindness means wishing that others be happy, and compassion means wishing that others be relieved of suffering.

    Lovingkindness is a classic Buddhist practice. It uses visualising and sentences such as “May you be happy”and “May you be free of suffering” to induce compassion. Similar practices appear in many other spiritual traditions.

    And intriguingly, modern research suggests that it’s easier to use meditation to boost compassion than other traits.

    This is a selection of the research on these practices:

    • Studies with beginners in lovingkindness meditation show heightened amygdala response to images of pain and suffering. One study found that after only seven minutes of lovingkindness meditation, there’s a temporary boost in social connection and positive feelings.
    • Participants in a three-day intensive lovingkindness training showed increased connection between control circuits in the PFC and the Posterior Cingulate Cortex.
    • Researchers at the University of Carolina have shown that nine weeks of practice in lovingkindness meditation increases sense of purpose and reduces illness.
    • Training in mindfulness over eight weeks was as effective at inducing compassion as compassion training. Participants were five times more likely to aid someone in need than waiting-list controls.


    The main goal of this article is to inspire newbie meditators to practice. Meditation is tough, particularly in the early days. It’s reassuring to know that changes are likely already taking place during your very first experiences.

    When you study the science behind meditation, focus on the findings that resonate with you and are aligned with your motivation for meditating. Gain encouragement from these studies and use them as fuel for the journey.

    And finally, you’ll have good days and bad days in meditation, and the bad days aren’t a sign that you’re failing or not experiencing gains. Stay on the path and keep practicing diligently. The further you walk, the greater the benefits.

    The science behind meditation in beginners. Physiological, attentional and distress-related.
    online mindfulness meditation beginners course

    Master The Essentials of Mindfulness Meditation and Build a Solid Foundation in Spiritual Practice

    The online Mindfulness Meditation For Beginners Course gives you 20+ lessons packed with techniques, advice and discoveries.

    This is a six-week journey into the most important mindfulness techniques and a profound exploration of yourself.