Mindfulness Meditation Changes How Fearful Memories Are Processed

sleeping cupid
A sleeping cupid (ca. 1630–1645) by Bartolomeo Coriolano. Original from The MET Museum

Mindfulness meditation appears to help extinguish fearful associations, a team led by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers report. The study[1] demonstrated that mindfulness training is associated with distinctive engagement of a brain area known as the right supramarginal gyrus as well as hippocampal-cortical reorganization.

“Mindfulness training may improve emotion regulation by changing the way our brain responds to what we’re afraid of and reminding us that it is no longer threatening,”

said Gunes Sevinc Ph.D., investigator in the Department of Psychiatry at MGH and the paper’s first author.

Exposure Therapy

A common way to treat anxiety disorders is to expose patients to the cause of their anxiety in a safe environment until it no longer elicits fear, a process known as exposure therapy. This exposure provides an opportunity to learn that these causes are not threatening and thereby help individuals regulate their emotional responses.

To be successful, first a new memory must be created between the root of the anxiety and a feeling of safety, then the ‘safety’ memory must be recalled when the cause is presented again in a new environment, rather than the original fearful memory.

Mindfulness meditation been proposed[2] to provide an optimal condition for exposure therapy because it involves experiencing the present moment with an open, curious and non-reactive mindset. Numerous studies have documented that mindfulness meditation programs are useful for reducing anxiety, however, the exact reasons were unknown[3].

The current study investigated enhanced learning of the ‘safety’ signal as one way through which mindfulness can help individuals learn to adapt more positively to the causes of their anxiety.

Enhanced Safety Memory Recall

Researchers used MRI brain scans and a fear-conditioning task to examine changes in the brain associated with attention and memory following mindfulness meditation training.

In the study, 42 participants completed an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program in which they learned formal meditation and yoga practices. Another 25 participants were randomized to an exercise-based stress management control group, in which they were taught about the impact of stress and performed light aerobic exercise.

The researchers found that changes in the brain after mindfulness training were associated with enhanced ability to recall the safety memory, and thus respond in a more adaptive way.

“Fear and anxiety have a habitual component to them—the memory of something that provoked fear in the past will trigger a habitual fear response when we are reminded of the event, even if there is no direct threat at the present. The data indicate that mindfulness can help us recognize that some fear reactions are disproportional to the threat, and thus reduces the fear response to those stimuli. Mindfulness can also enhance our ability to remember this new, less fearful reaction, and break the anxiety habit,”

says Sara Lazar, Ph.D., of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, the study’s senior author.


A major limitation of the study was that all of the participants were healthy individuals without anxiety. Future studies need to be done with clinical samples and using threatening stimuli relevant to their anxiety (e.g. spiders, cues that trigger panic or PTSD, etc.) to determine if similar changes in brain activation occur in these conditions.

Furthermore, some of the findings were observed in both the mindfulness and control groups, suggesting that some of the changes are not unique to mindfulness training, or might be due to some other component of the program, such as social support.

The work was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health.

[1] Sevinc, Gunes et al. Strengthened Hippocampal Circuits Underlie Enhanced Retrieval of Extinguished Fear Memories Following Mindfulness Training. Biological Psychiatry, Volume 86, Issue 9, 693 – 702

[2] Treanor, M. The potential impact of mindfulness on exposure and extinction learning in anxiety disorders. Clin Psychol Rev. 2011; 31: 617–625

[3] Tang, Y.-Y., Hölzel, B.K., and Posner, M.I. The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2015; 16: 213–225

Image: Detail from A Sleeping Cupid (ca. 1630–1645) Bartolomeo Coriolano.

Last Updated on January 8, 2024