How similar are the changes in neural activity resulting from mindfulness practice in contrast to spiritual practice?

Joseph M. Barnby, Neil W. Bailey, Richard Chambers, Paul B. Fitzgerald

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)


Meditation and spiritual practices are conceptually similar, eliciting similar subjective experiences, and both appear to provide similar benefits to the practicing individuals. However, no research has examined whether the mechanism of action leading to the beneficial effects is similar in both practices. This review examines the neuroimaging research that has focused on groups of meditating individuals, groups who engage in religious/spiritual practices, and research that has examined groups who perform both practices together, in an attempt to assess whether this may be the case. Differences in the balance of activity between the parietal and prefrontal cortical activation were found between the three groups. A relative prefrontal increase was reflective of mindfulness, which related to decreased anxiety and improved well-being. A relative decrease in activation of the parietal cortex, specifically the inferior parietal cortex, appears to be reflective of spiritual belief, whether within the context of meditation or not. Because mindful and spiritual practices differ in focus regarding the ‘self’ or ‘other’ (higher being), these observations about neurological components that reflect spirituality may continue work towards understanding how the definition of ‘self’ and ‘other’ is represented in the brain, and how this may be reflected in behaviour. Future research can begin to use cohorts of participants in mindfulness studies which are controlled for using the variable of spirituality to explicitly examine how functional and structural similarities and differences may arise.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)219 - 232
Number of pages14
JournalConsciousness and Cognition
Issue numberNovember 2015
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • Neuroscience of mindfulness
  • Neuroscience of spirituality
  • Self
  • Other
  • Fronto-parietal network
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Inferior parietal lobule
  • Alpha inhibition
  • Quantitative neuroimaging
  • Spiritual practice

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