Paper review: How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work?













Dr Britta Hölzel has been getting a lot of traction for her work and papers recently on a scientific study of meditation and I contacted her about her recent work. She was kind enough to send me a copy of her latest paper – How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? (Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective Britta K. Hölzel, Sara W. Lazar, Tim Gar, Zev Schuman-Olivier, David R. Vago and Ulrich Ott.)

In this blog, I review their paper and discuss how it relates to my work i.e. how I am considering using their framework in my work. Later this week, I will speak on this topic at The Society for Existential Analysis conference on permeation of technology in everyday life


The goal of the paper is to create a scientific debate by proposing a consolidated model for understanding mindfulness. The paper emphasises that mindfulness is not a single skill but that it seems to encompass several mechanisms and that these mechanisms all work in synthesis to produce these beneficial effects.

The paper first describes the components of mindfulness meditation and then discusses how these components are integrated during mindfulness meditation. The paper then discuss the relationship of self-compassion with the components.

The paper proposes that the combination of the following components —some of which have been identified in previous accounts— describe much of the mechanism of action through which mindfulness works:

1. Attention regulation

2. Body awareness

3. Emotion regulation, including

a. Reappraisal

b. Exposure, extinction, and reconsolidation

4. Change in perspective on the self

The paper illustrates the interaction of the four components with an example.

The meditator’s goal is to maintain attention to internal and external experiences in a non-judgemental state manifesting acceptance, curiosity and openness. When an external stimulus triggers an emotional reaction, the attention system detects a conflict. Heightened body awareness helps to detect physiological aspects of the feelings present (e.g. body tension, rapid heartbeat, short shallow breath). This triggers the emotion regulation process to react to the stimulus differently than normal (ex: just noticing it as opposed to reacting to it)

The example shows that rather than being stuck in the habitual reactions to the external and internal environment, the meditator can experience the transitory nature of all related perceptions, emotions, or cognitions in each moment of experience. The awareness of the transitory nature of the self and one’s momentary experience leads to a change in the perspective on the self. In doing so, self-referential processing (i.e., the narrative of the relevance of the stimulus for oneself) becomes diminished, while first person experiencing becomes enhanced.

To this, the paper also considers the concept of self-compassion which provides a non-judgemental framework to the entire experience. Self-compassion itself entails three components: self-kindness (being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of perceived inadequacy or suffering rather than being harshly self-critical), common humanity (perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as separating and isolating), and “mindfulness” (in this context defined as “holding one’s painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them”

This idea of considering mindfulness as a set of components and of experiencing the transitionary nature of these components within a framework of self-compassion is the key contribution of the paper.

The whole process is designed to attain self-regulation which is defined as a process that enables individuals to guide their goal-directed activities by modulation of thought, affect, behaviour, or attention via deliberate or automated use of specific mechanisms. This is the basis of all meditation.


In my forthcoming book – Meditation in the Age of Facebook and Twitter: Personal development through social meditation – from shamanism to transhumanism  I am exploring the evolution of meditation.

Meditation conjures up images of a monk-like existence divorced from everyday life. In contrast, I propose a different image, that of an air traffic controller, where your mind receives many inputs, the stakes are high and split second decisions and intuition are a part of the job. While the stakes are less serious for us, we all relate to this situation and if meditation can help us solve the problem, it can have practical use in our increasingly complex lives

In this book, I propose that we are now entering the fourth age of meditation (following the previous ages of Shamanic meditation, Religious meditation and ‘Leaderful/Guru Led’ meditation). In the fourth age of meditation, meditation becomes a technology that will cause an exponential uptake in human intelligence and evolution. The starting point for this exponential uptake of human intelligence is our brain and our mind. More specifically, the exponential uptake of intelligence could be brought about by a connectivity and enhancement of minds through networks and technology. In that sense, meditation is a ‘transhumanist’ technology and networks are the underlying paradigm of the fourth age of meditation.

All networks, including neural networks and social networks, have a common theme. In the fourth age of meditation, we take a network based ‘two-sided view’ of meditation. On one hand, meditation is a disconnection from the emotional attachment to the flow of messages. This is the historical/ conventional understanding of meditation. But we also explore the other side of meditation i.e. the ‘connectivity’ aspect of meditation, with its fascinating possibilities.

The book shows you meditative techniques using brainwave technology.

It addresses questions like:

• How will our brain evolve through transhumanist meditation?

• How can we use technology to enhance our meditative state?

• What are the future implications for society, culture and spirituality?

• If we take the approach of ‘gedankenexperiment’ (thought experiment), how would the world look like as we evolve?

• How would our Identity and relationship with the world change as we continue to change, evolve and enhance our minds through a fusion of meditation, networks and technology?


Now, as part of this book – which took a long time to write – and has taken a life of it’s own – I was exploring the idea of ‘social meditation using neural technologies’.

Bio sensors/brain wave sensors are moving beyond the laboratory and into the home.  Brainwave sensors, like those from Neurosky, are now very affordable. This has fascinating possibilities which could take many directions, one of which is the development of community around brainwave meditation. As Chris Anderson says:  Lower the barriers to entry and the crowd pours in. When that happens, we enter a phase when the technology evolves through social connections and becomes a part of our daily lives.


So, I explore the scenario of social meditation augmented by neural technology as an ongoing experiment.  Working with Neurosky headsets  , we are creating a collaborative, technology based meditation concept using the Neurosky APIs. Think of it as a ‘game’ where you can synchronize with each other in a group. The ability to synchronise with individuals globally could be the basis of a social network – just like we have today for genome tree sequences. The system comprises a PC based platform that enables multiple neurosky headsets to connect to a central PC.   The application runs on the PC and the participants try to ‘tune in’ through listening to music. The session records the brain waves and then we are able to determine the degree of ‘sync’ between participants after the session.

For the above, I intend to use the framework / components from the paper How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? I hope this will be an ongoing experiment and I can share the results here over time

Comments welcome