Unlocking the Psychology of Meditation

There is no one definition for meditation or mindfulness. Maybe meditation for you is focusing on what you’re eating, working on interpersonal communication, or counting your breaths. While these differ greatly, the parts of the brain that are used in these practices are the same.


So, before talking through meditation practices, I will explain meditation at a neural level; helping you understand how our brain is used in mindfulness practices. There are three interconnected components of the brain that are activated during meditation:

  1. The Prefrontal cortex

You may have heard someone say before that ‘our prefrontal cortex fully develops at 25 years of age.’ This is exactly the part of the brain we are now talking about! We actually have separate regions of the prefrontal cortex. We will focus specifically on our left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is behind our forehead and to the left. Our left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, when activated, synthesizes and controls our physical and emotional sensations.


2. The Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)

The ACC interprets different bodily signals such as an increased heart rate or change in breathing rhythm. This information regarding bodily signals is received from other areas of the brain, such as the amygdala and hypothalamus, and other parts of the body, including the gut and heart. Then, the ACC synthesizes this information.


3. The Insula

Believe it or not, the insula is yet another part of the brain that interprets bodily signals. This is a cortical region of the brain that helps with processing pain, addiction, and interoception.


Now you may be thinking, aren’t all these 3 parts of the brain doing the same thing? Well… they all work TOGETHER to accomplish common goals. Overall, these parts of the brain are used to understand what the body is feeling.


So now that we have neuroscience down, let’s get to how this is related to mindfulness and meditation. There is not one way to meditate, but what may be the best way for YOU to meditate?


During meditation, we focus on perception over sensation. This means we’re reflecting inward instead of outward- sensation focuses on what surrounds us and what we touch, hear, see, and feel. Some of us may be better at perception than others, and we must self-assess where we fall on this continuum.


If you find yourself sensing changes in heart rate or breathing rhythms, you have a strong interoceptive awareness. On the other hand, if you struggle to synthesize how you’re feeling internally, and are more focused on external stimuli, you are stronger in exteroception. 



Overall, this self-assessment on interoception versus exteroception awareness reflects how much you can attend to things inside of yourself versus outside of yourself. We can use this self-assessment to personalize meditative practices. There are meditations that are interoceptive biased and interoceptive biased.


If you’re stronger in interoception, consider the following-

Interoceptive awareness meditations- eyes should be closed:

  • Guided body scans
  • Breathing exercises
  • Body tensing- progressive muscle relaxation

If you’re weaker in interoception, consider the following-

Exteroceptive meditations- eyes should be open:

  • Focusing on a still point on a wall, or a candle flame
  • Walking meditation
  • Mindful eating


Meditation is one of the most accessible forms of self-care. Finding what works for you is extremely important and a fantastic way to get more in touch with yourself! Try to self-assess and use these specified meditative techniques for interoceptive versus exteroceptive practices.

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