The Neuroscience of Mindfulness
A) Sense making1 2
These are two modes in which we experience the world - ie the way we take in information
and make sense of it relative to ourselves.
The Narrative Focus (often referred to as the Default Network) is way of experiencing the
world by through our memories, intentions and connections with others. It is signiﬁcantly
affected by our relationships and emotions. Research suggests that this mode limits our
emotional regulation and is responsible for our mind ‘wandering off’ from time to time.
The Experiential Focus (also referred to as the Direct Experience network) allows us to
experience the world through the sensations of our body and the sights and sounds to
which we are exposed - ie the inner and outside worlds. Research suggests that this is
associated with greater self regulation and overall levels of positivity.
These two modes utilise different networks and neural pathways in the brain. In addition,
the usage of these networks are inversely correlated - one tends to dominate at any point
While the Narrative Focus (Default Network) tends to be used more frequently, the practice
of mindfulness promotes the use of the Experiential Focus (Direct Experience Network) by
intentionally shifting attention to the inner (body) and outer (external stimuli) worlds.
This is the potential of the brain to reorganise by creating new neural pathways in the
process of adaptation.
In the case of mindfulness, we refer principally to the strengthening of the Direct
Experience Network to allow us to wilfully direct our attention to the present - our inner and
By activating our insula (allowing us to experience real and imagined bodily sensations)
and anterior cingulate cortex (that facilitates our ability to switch attention), we are able to
experience events in a non-judgmental way, improve our concentration and better regulate
Attending to the present: Mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference, N Farb et1
al, Department of Psychology, University of Toronto, 2007
Effects of mindfulness meditation on emotional reactivity and self association with emotional stimuli, A2
Jagannathan, occasional publication, 2013
Pocket guide to interpersonal neurobiology, D Siegel, 20123
Mindfulness creates neural pathways that strengthens the connections between different
parts of the brain and that promote better self regulation.
On the other hand, the Default Network (Narrative Focus) connects regions of the PFC
with those parts of the brain that control memory, including the hippocampus. This brings
our personal narrative into play - what memories we hold, our self identity, and what we
aspire to be. As a consequence, this narrative acts as a ﬁlter to place a speciﬁc
interpretation on events and facts, often limiting our perception of events.
Bio-feedback describes the close relationship between brain and body. The brain is, in
effect, an integral part of the body, and vice versa. We may think about the functioning of
the brain as ‘embodied cognition’ - ie: the way we sense stimuli, process information and
decide is inﬂuenced by the bio-feedback between the brain and body .4
Some researchers posit that, due to this relationship, we think with our whole body . The5
brain will detect a range of stimuli that are registered non-consciously and manifested as
physical sensations through the body. This will stimulate the production of a range of
neurotransmitters and hormones that further inﬂuence mood, metabolism and cognitive
The practice of mindfulness has a noticeable affect on slowing rates of breathing and
heartbeat. In effect, it slows the body down to produce a calmness that promotes a wider
window of tolerance and increased resilience to stress. Research reveals that this is also6
associated with a strengthening of the immune system and the body’s telomeres - an
essential part of the cell structure that affects the way the body ages .7
All in all, bio-feedback plays an important role in sustaining the system by ensuring that all
parts are closely connected and work together.
Dr Norman Chorn
Dr Terri Hunter
Two awesome hours, J Davis, HarperCollins, 20154
The hour between dog and wolf, J Coates, Fourth Estate, 20135
Pocket guide to interpersonal neurobiology, op cit6
Transient delivery of modiﬁed mRNA encoding TERT rapidly extends telomeres in human cells, J7
Ramunas, E Yakubov et al, The FASEB Journal, 14, 2015