The Science Behind Meditation
What actually happens when we meditate?

Meditation is a formal practice that has been developed in many cultures and spiritual traditions. It aims to calm the mind, monitor and regulate emotions, and create awareness of self.

Many studies have been conducted to find out how different styles of meditation affect specific cognitive processes, or how changes in these processes might impact our overall well-being.

Meanwhile, mounting research has shed light on altered states of consciousness induced by psychedelics such as lysergic acid diethylamide and psilocybin fungi. Many spiritual traditions aim at dissolving the sense of self by altering the state of consciousness through meditation. Furthermore, various studies have attempted to tie psychedelic states and the neurophysiology of meditation, because psychedelics are known for considerable disruptions of self-consciousness or ego dissolution.

In this article, we discuss these scientific findings from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience and psychology to better understand the ways meditation can affect our well-being, whether by having an effect on our mental health or by alleviating our physical sufferings.

Meditation vs. psychedelics: long-term effects on the brain

Evidence suggests that high doses of psychedelic drugs and some forms of meditation performed by highly skilled practitioners can cause self-consciousness to be temporarily disrupted in powerful ways. Self-consciousness in the lower level includes the mind traveling in time and thoughts related to self, and in the higher levels include loss of body ownership, self-location, and body awareness.(4) In the long run, these states of selflessness result in a reduction of Default Mode Network (DMN) activity, and a change in gray matter thickness in the brains of meditation practitioners.

A study, based on examined evidence, suggests that there is an alteration in function and structure plasticity of neural processes related to attention and emotion in highly experienced meditators’ brains.(6) They found that cortical thickness in the anterior region of the long-term meditation practitioners’ brains was significantly thicker than that of the control group.

In general, they observed structural differences in the white and gray matter, which are related to intellectual ability. Since general intelligence is directly linked with cortical thickness in both brain hemispheres(7), it can be concluded that long-term meditation leads to a higher intelligence level.

Several studies suggest that long-term meditators are capable of controlling the self-awareness level(5). And long-term mindfulness meditation improves executive functioning, as well as the ability to sustain attention, mood, memory, and verbal fluency. (8) Therefore, long-term meditators have a higher ability to focus and solve problems, as well as having high performance and fluency in their language.

Although there are studies suggesting that psychedelics have a long-term positive effect on the brain, such as increasing neuronal responsiveness to contradictory emotional input in decision-making circuits(9), it is still unknown whether such drugs induce long-term self-dissolution effects on the brain.

Self-consciousness (ego dissolution) can be achieved through a variety of means.

By monitoring your thoughts without chasing them, you can gradually gain control over them and eventually learn to find peace and stillness. The following methods will help you to achieve high levels of meditation.

Drug-induced Ego dissolution

High doses of psychedelic substances can cause a sense of self-loss as a side effect.


Mindfulness can be achieved through a group of meditation practices, including mindfulness practice of breathing. In meditation, mindfulness refers to the awareness of the present moment without being judgemental.

Focused Attention or Presence

With focused attention or presence, you can train your attention on your internal body by scanning the sensations or focusing on the breath.

Compassion-focussed meditation

In compassion-focused meditation, or loving-kindness meditation, one is aware of the suffering of oneself and others.It is a form of meditation that aims to develop compassion for self and others.

Healing chronic illnesses

In the following, we will discuss how regular meditation benefits individuals in several ways, based on mounting evidence.

Anti-inflammatory effects

The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study in March 2016 in which mindful-based stress reduction therapy was shown to be effective for adults suffering from chronic lower back pain. (9)

In March 2016, another study revealed that mindful meditation helps relieve chronic pain by using a different mechanism in the body than addictive opioid medications. (10)

Meditation can also aid cancer survivors in coping with the emotional stress that typically comes with the condition. A research published in “Cancer” journal in April 2015 found that a brief mindfulness-based therapy demonstrated potential short-term benefits in decreasing stress, behavioral symptoms, and pro-inflammatory signals among younger breast cancer survivors. (11)

The potential for psychedelics to ease pain was also presented in a study published in November 2021, which showed that pain scores for participants with mixed chronic pain significantly improved during and after therapy experiences. (12)

Another study published in April 30, 2015, assessed the effect of meditation on patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease. IBS and IBD are among the diseases which affect a person’s well-being profoundly. Researchers found significant improvements in disease-specific measures, trait anxiety, and pain catastrophizing after more than 3-weeks of practicing Tai Chi, yoga, individual mind/body-based psychotherapy, meditation, and/or counseling. (15)

Although further study on the effects of meditation and psychedelics on chronic pain is necessary, researchers believe it has the potential to be a complementary or alternative therapy method.

Meditation and psychotropic effects on anxiety

A number of studies have found that meditation affects certain parts of the brain associated with anxiety and stress. (1) Researchers examined MRIs of individuals who meditated to see if there were any changes in gray and white matter. Study data suggests that meditation decreases the activity of regions in the brain associated with emotional and cognitive control as well as the default mode network (DMN), the part of the brain that controls judgment, reality testing, and self-awareness, namely “ego”.

An additional study published in November 2021 found that meditation may help overweight and obese women reduce stress and make beneficial dietary changes. (13)

Another study was done on patients with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). One group of patients was assigned to practice mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) while another group was a control group. The results of this study showed that MBSR decreases anxiety by increasing mindfulness, specifically awareness and non-reactivity. (3)

Meditation can come to our rescue during crisis moments like the COVID-19 pandemic. A study published on 2020 May 14, revealed that practicing mindfulness improved anxiety scores significantly in people who have completed an MBSR program. The study suggests that practicing mindfulness and meditation can potentially benefit all of us coping with anxiety at a low cost. (14)

Researchers conducted a study in October 2021 and found that people who practiced mindfulness meditation experienced significantly less intra-operative anxiety than those who were in the control group. Based on their findings, meditation helped patients who underwent third molar surgery to cope with the anxiety caused by the surgery. (16)

Meditation can improve sleep quality.

Poor sleep quality, and short night sleep duration, is linked to chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease. Moreover, sleep deprivation leads to poor performance and a feeling of exhaustion during the day. Dealing with a trauma is one of the reasons that can lead to constant sleep disruption. Traumatic events can lead a person to have a shorter sleep duration, which is known as impaired sleep.

There is research suggesting that meditation practice significantly prevents the person from getting affected by the negative effects of crisis events.(2) Mediation enables one to be aware of one’s present experiences without bias, and it also helps the individual separate himself or herself from those experiences. By doing so, it can help people get a better night’s sleep.