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A Glimpse into the Meditating Brain

Bryan Williams
University of New Mexico
Abstract: Meditation has served as a traditional Eastern technique to transform consciousness and
gain higher insight by focusing attention and introspectively observing one’s own mental processes.
Some research now suggests that regularly practicing meditation may also benefit health and well-being
by helping to calm the mind and body. With encouragement from the Dalai Lama, neuroscientists are
currently studying the meditating brain in order to learn more about how it works, how it changes, and
how it can promote mind-body health. In this paper, a basic overview of the latest findings relating to
the possible brain correlates of meditation is presented, and the implications of these findings for health
and the psychological quest to better understand subjective conscious experience are discussed.
* This paper is an extended version of an invited talk given at the Morning Star Center for Spiritual
Living, Norman, OK, June 7, 2009. My appreciation goes to Dylan Oaks for his help and support, and to
Grant Lacquement for permission to cite his work and for lending useful resource material.

1. Introduction
In seeking to deal with the stress and demands that come with the challenges of everyday life, many
people now find solace in the momentary respite often attained through the practice of meditation.
According to a recent survey by the National Center for Health Statistics in Maryland (Barnes, Bloom, &
Nahin, 2008), meditative practice among adults has significantly increased from 7.6% in 2002 to 9.4%
in 2007, making it one of the most commonly used complementary and alternative therapies in the
United States. It is currently estimated that there are about 10 million American meditators, and
hundreds of millions around the world (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006, p. 227).
Various forms of meditation are known to exist, but most forms can be generally grouped into one of
two classes for the simple purpose of distinction (see Table 1 below). The first class is often called
concentrative meditation, in which attention is focused on a particular object, image, word, sound, or
bodily process, such as breathing. The second class is often called mindfulness meditation, which
involves expanding attention in a passive way to allow broader awareness of one’s own mental
processes. In other words, one expands their inner awareness and introspectively observes their
thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. This inner focusing can help filter out extraneous
distractions that can potentially interrupt the exploration of higher mental states and the attempt to
gain insight. The boundaries between these two classes should not be considered fixed, however, as
some forms of meditation can and do blend techniques from both classes (Goleman, 1988).
Although they tend to differ from one another in terms of technique, philosophy, and outcome, recent
research suggests that the various forms of meditation may share one important commonality: they
appear to beneficial for health and well-being. For example, volunteers who practiced a simple mantra
(word)-based concentrative meditation technique twice a day showed a significant reduction in stress
and negative mood after three months (Lane, Seskevich, & Pieper, 2007). In addition, a practitioner of
Transcendental Meditation (TM) once stated: "I often feel an increased calmness in tense situations
where I work. Even my co-workers say they don’t understand how I can be so calm. It’s all due to
meditation" (Ferguson, 1975, p. 17). Other study findings suggest that Yoga and various forms of
mindfulness meditation may provide supplemental benefit for the treatment of stress, mood, and
anxiety symptoms (Arias et al., 2006; Chiesa & Serretti, 2009; Davidson et al., 2003; Grossman et al.,
2004; Ivanovski & Malhi, 2007; Oman et al., 2008; Shapiro et al., 1998; Walsh & Shapiro, 2006).1
Table 1. The Two Classes of Meditation and Some of Their Various Sub-Forms

Brief Description

Transcendental Meditation

A 20- to 30-minute practice usually done twice daily, in which
the meditator focuses attention on a specific word, image, or
sound (called a mantra) that is traditionally obtained from the
Sanskrit language. Originally derived from ancient Vedic
tradition by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Yoga Meditation

Originally derived from ancient Hindu culture, various types exist
(e.g., Tantric, Hatha, Kundalini, Qigong, Sahaja, Nidra,
Samatha). Each type utilizes its own techniques in body posture
(asana), breath control (pranayama), focused image or idea
attention (dharana), and contemplation (dhyana) to move toward
a goal of achieving the state of Samadhi, a union with the
"Universal Self."

Meditative Prayer

A form of religious contemplation seen in Christianity, Judaism,
and Islam, wherein a devout practitioner focuses their attention
on a certain phrase or prayer from a given religious text (e.g.,
the Bible, the Koran) with the goal of opening themselves to,
and attaining oneness with, a certain divine entity (e.g., God,
Christ, Allah).

Zen Meditation (Zazen)

Originally derives from the Mahayana school of Buddhism found
in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean culture. Following the
philosophy of Zen Buddhism, the practitioner’s goal is to enter
Satori, a state of enlightenment in which they become fully
attuned to the reality both inside and outside their body, and
they gain the ability to ask the appropriate questions concerning
these realities. To gain the insight needed to understand the
answers, the practitioner practices meditating on a traditional
riddle or puzzle (known as a koan).


A practice derived from the Theravada Buddhist tradition of Thai
and Burmese culture, wherein the practitioner passively
observes their present thoughts and bodily sensations with the
goal of increasing equanimity, a state of passive acceptance
that relies on awareness of these thoughts and sensations.


The potential benefits of meditative practice may stem in part from its ability to help calm the mind and
body. Physiological monitoring of novice TM meditators has often revealed notable drops in their
breathing rate, oxygen intake, and heartrate during meditation, along with a rise in their skin’s
electrical resistance. This suggests that, as they are meditating, these individuals gradually become
calmer and experience a drop in body metabolism (Davidson, 1976; Ferguson, 1975; Travis & Wallace,
1999; Wallace, 1970; Wallace & Benson, 1972; Wallace et al., 1971; West, 1979; Woolfolk, 1975).2
Studies of novice Yoga and Zen meditators have found similar drops in breathing rate and/or oxygen
intake, while skin resistance either tends to rise or become more stable, again suggesting a calming
state (Corby et al., 1978; Elson et al., 1977; West, 1979; Woolfolk, 1975). As we shall see in Section 4, the
physiological effects of practice may be more complex for advanced meditators.
Another potential benefit of meditative practice is that it appears to be effective in improving one’s
attention. Cognitive studies find that novice mindfulness and TM meditators tend to perform better
than non-meditators on attentional tasks, and they tend to be less affected by distracting stimuli (Chan
& Wollacott, 2007; Moore & Malinowski, 2009; Tang et al., 2007). Meditators also tend to notice fastmoving stimuli that other people may miss (Lutz et al., 2008; Slagter et al., 2007).
All of these findings naturally lead to a valuable question: What might be going on in the mind, and
thus the brain, of a meditator to produce these behavioral effects? Recently, this question has intrigued
the minds of neuroscientists, psychologists, Buddhist scholars, and even the Dalai Lama. During an
invited address at the 2005 Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, His Holiness expressed an
interest in the matter and encouraged neuroscientists to further explore the meditating brain in order
to learn more about how it works, how it changes, and how it may lead to better therapies for mind-

. But before we can begin to explore the meditating has an energy about it. According to him. a mindfulness meditator described his transcending experience during the deep state in the following manner: I am usually aware of the boundary of my body against the skin and you lose that sense in head would feel incredibly expanded and huge. 2006.. then what areas and functions of the brain might be associated with the deep meditative state? This is another valuable question that has apparently sparked the interest of the Dalai Lama.... 2004). there was just’s like a place.field of awareness that is cosmic..but expanding out from there in all directions.... 2006). During such states.field of energy. the experience felt: ... For example."Holy schmoly! What have I stumbled on now? What is this energy?" (p. Some advanced meditators have spoken of entering what have been called "deep" or "higher" states of meditation.. along with spontaneous body movements and perceived changes in their body image (Kornfield..that I don’t have in my life... Vipassana meditators sometimes relate experiences similar to those seen in deep states during intense training retreats.. 127. and/or deep calmness throughout the deep meditative state (’s like. 2.and so that sense of being enormous and yet not out of my’s very. 1979).. rapture. There may be another valuable reason for studying the meditating brain. 126). The Brain: Mapping the Territory . If that is the case. boundless. an experience that has also been described in Yogic lore and Buddhist spiritual tradition.. These experiences that meditators report having during deep states suggest that they may be briefly experiencing an aspect of conscious awareness beyond that of their ordinary. italics in original) Some may also describe feeling intense bliss. everyday awareness.. which may allow them to see where their respective disciplines intersect when it comes to exploring the nature of the mind (Barinaga.a kind of immeasurable distance.. To encourage exploration into the issue.literally as though my arms were extended and they extended to the reaches of the universe. very powerful.. This seems akin to experiencing a higher sense of reality. p. A female meditator described her encounter in terms of a sense of a higher power: . the boundaries of which are not clearly delineated (Gifford-May & Thompson. as well as facilitate connection with a higher divine presence. 124)..body health (Fields.. 2003. many meditators can often have a profound experience of transcending the physical and mental boundaries of their own individual self.. Grant Lacquement (2008) states that meditative prayer can uncover a "larger awareness and connection" that is always present. During transcendence. it is imperative to briefly survey the territory that we will be venturing into. A meditator practicing TM felt as though the center of his being was expanding outward in a physical way.whatever that was. if it were capable of being the size that a galaxy could fit into..and suddenly you find this. His Holiness has hosted several research conferences in order to foster a dialogue between neuroscientists and Buddhist scholars. One of them described this as a: .. and briefly discusses what these lessons could mean for mind-body health and the broader psychological quest to better understand conscious experience.. Talan.. Knight.there was no sense of limitation. oceanic (p.endless. infinitely ( become a kind of... 128 – 129).. some meditators may describe encountering a different sense of reality. 125).. This paper provides an overview of what neuroscience has tentatively learned so far about the meditating brain..

called the cerebrum. Perched above the brainstem and the cerebellum is the largest part of the brain. p. called the cerebral cortex. with each of its major lobes and cortices indicated (see text for details). so that they do not lose the trail along the way. Blossoming out of the back of the brainstem is the cerebellum. 83). a narrow stalk of tissue connected to the spinal cord that contains bundles of nerve cells. but it takes up more than a third of the brain’s volume because it is folded like the shell of a walnut into a maze of hills and valleys. which are vital for keeping us alive and conscious. plan our actions. undiscovered valleys. and coordinate our movements. A foray into this new territory requires a basic map that other people can follow. Like the world at that time. A map suitable for our purposes is shown in Figure 1. and occipital). once suggested that exploring the brain is akin to the trip that Marco Polo took to China around 1275. Roll. Its upper layer of tissue. 1995. temporal. parietal. The cerebrum can be divided into four individual lobes (frontal. a convoluted mass of neural tissue that helps maintain body balance and muscle coordination. Figure 1. is comprised of 70 to 100 billion neurons (Schneider & Tarshis.My mentor William G. In connection with this. The adult brain weighs a little more than three pounds. or neurons. the rear of . a retired professor of psychology at the University of West Georgia. each of which is specialized to handle certain behaviors. At its base is the brainstem. while other parts still harbor hidden. several parts of the brain are pretty well understood. The cortex only 3 to 5 millimeters thick. The frontal lobe plays a prime role in our ability to make decisions. A basic map of the human brain.

a person can have difficulty making fine movements with their fingers and limbs (Kolb & Whishaw. This area. pressure. the two structures at the heart of memory and emotion. Logothetis. and single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT). 1995. pp. Ch. The inner reaches of the temporal lobe are the domain of the hippocampus and the amygdala. including heart rate. 2002). these positrons produce X-rays that can be detected. Ch. 2001. It can also be activated when people shift their attention toward a particular point in space (Corbetta et al. 1991). 123 – 126. When it is electrically stimulated. breathing rate. a person is intravenously injected with a liquid (called a tracer) that contains a weak radioactive isotope. 1990. 1995. pp. which receives and analyzes information relating to pain. The temporal lobe is also involved in hearing. Imaging the Brain Our ability to learn about the specialized abilities of the four lobes has greatly improved over the past few decades through advances in brain imaging technology. which contains the primary visual cortex. Given its role in spatial perception. as it contains the auditory cortex. is known as the anterior cingulate cortex. 16. 2. respectively. 1996.1. Upon receiving electrical stimulation of their visual cortex. This area may also be relevant in our discussion of certain forms of meditation. So far. Directly behind the lower part of the frontal lobe is a cortical area that will be relevant to our discussion of certain forms of meditation.. 1995. a person may feel a tingling sensation in their skin. PET follows the idea that the brain areas with the highest amounts of blood are the most neurally active at the time (Kolb & Whishaw. People with an impaired visual cortex can be "mentally blind. which has a shape similar to that of a crescent moon. Based on the idea that the brain regions which have the most oxygen-rich blood are the ones that are the most neurally active at the moment. where signals from the eyes are processed. pp. In a PET scan. 228 – 238). touch. 95 – 96). 1991. When the motor cortex is damaged. gradually emitting positrons as the isotope decays. Sack et al. 86 – 89). Toward its front is the somatosensory cortex. To do this. When they interact with other subatomic particles. Haxby et al.the frontal lobe contains the primary motor cortex. Posner & Rothbart.. counted. many fMRI studies commonly use a technique known as blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) hemodynamic response. the parietal lobe has been considered the "where" pathway in visual signal processing (Linden. BOLD measurements allow us to estimate the level of neural activity in a particular brain region during a specific behavior. three kinds of advanced technologies have been used to study the meditating brain: functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). and blood pressure (Devinsky et al. BOLD measures the amount of oxygen in the brain as a result of cerebral blood flow. depth. the tracer traces a path through the brain as it courses through the bloodstream... The parietal lobe appears to play a role in both sense and spatial perception. As its name implies. 2007. As implied by its big name. 2008). positron emission tomography (PET). even though their eyes still respond to their presence (Kolb & Whishaw. one of the central brain areas involved in movement. Similar to fMRI. which becomes active when people try to visually determine the location. These advances have been immensely valuable for medicine and neuroscience because they allow us to electronically peer through the skull and glimpse the brain as it partakes of behavior. people have reported seeing a bright flash of light or even swirls of color. Toward the back of the parietal lobe is a small sub-region called the superior parietal lobule. Schneider & Tarshis. 1990. and temperature from all parts of the body. In the back of the brain is the occipital lobe. 287 – 288). In addition to being involved in some forms of attention and complex thought processing. and trajectory of objects in physical space (Cohen et al." meaning that they are often unable to perceive objects in front of them. . 19). Unlike the purely static image of the standard MRI.. pp. 1990. the chief brain area for sound and speech processing. some research suggests the anterior cingulate cortex is also involved in regulating some features of the autonomic nervous system. or they may suddenly have the feeling of being lightly touched. and mapped using a digital scanner. pp. fMRI provides ongoing impressions of working brain function in relation to behavior. This in turn allows us to infer which regions may be functionally associated with that behavior (Buxton.

. and attentive (Schneider & Tarshis. so we shall look take a closer look at them in Section 4. measured in cycles per second. it is possible to study the meditating brain by monitoring its electrical activity. several research findings suggest that people who practice TM can physiologically experience a calming effect in their body while meditating.. Ferguson. 1980. as they meditate. Beta waves (13 – 29 Hz) appear when we are actively thinking. Theta waves (4 – 7 Hz) can also be present during sleep. 3. Jevning et al.1. This suggests that. Stigsby et al. and often arise when we are mentally integrating and processing complex sensory information (Desmedt & Tomberg. Joliot et al. small metal disks capable of conducting electricity (known as electrodes) are attached to the scalp at various places around the head to detect the brain waves traveling up from the underlying cortical surface. pp. and commonly appear when we are in a deep sleep. Alpha waves (8 – 12 Hz) are typically present during a state of relaxed awareness. 1971). West. or Hertz (Hz): Delta waves (1 – 3 Hz) have the slowest wave cycles. Studies of the Meditating Brain With our survey of its territory complete. Woolfolk. 1970. 1992. pp. as they are called. 1995.. which would be consistent with a calming effect. West. To record a person’s brain waves by EEG. It should be kept in mind that. 1990. except that instead of X-rays. 1975). the scanner detects the individual photons that are gradually emitted by different kind of tracer. when our minds are not actively engaged in deep thought. 1975. Wallace. based on experimental findings. Davidson. Through a reaction with the chemicals found in neural tissue. 370 – 371). 2006.. But what is happening in their brain during that time? Various EEG studies indicate that as they sit quietly with their eyes closed and focus on their mantra. In order to better grasp the concept underlying this phenomenon. a phenomenon often known as EEG coherence (Ferguson. p. These patterns are often recorded from electrode sites located over the frontal lobes and near the brain’s midline (Wallace et al. There are five types of brain waves that are distinguished by their frequency. the brain waves of TM practitioners tend to gradually slow down and approach frequencies that are typically associated with low mental arousal. 1981. 1992.. usually when we start to feel drowsy and fall into a light sleep (Carlson. registering only about a thousandth of a volt. 3. Brain Waves In addition to imaging techniques. A small number of them may show a drop in wave frequency to the lower part of the alpha spectrum (8 to 9 Hz). pp. Gamma waves (30 – 80 Hz) have the fastest wave cycles. 2004). Cahn & Polich. The electrochemical activity of the billions of neurons found in the brain produces a continuous stream of electric waves that are emitted from the surface of the cerebral cortex.. many TM meditators show a steady pattern of alpha waves. and then compared them afterward to see if they show any similarity.2. the tracer is briefly retained by the brain and thereby provides a snapshot of the brain’s metabolic activity (Kolb & Whishaw. 1975. the experiments described in this section were done with novice and intermediate meditators who only have practiced for a relatively short time (anywhere from six months to four years). p. 1994. In addition. Jevning et al. during our ordinary conscious state. Most of the time. followed by the brief appearance of a theta wave pattern (Banquet. 412 – 413). can be observed and recorded using a device called an electroencephalograph (EEG). 1976. 242 – 243). 2. so they must be amplified by the EEG before being recorded as a series of jagged lines on a moving paper chart. These brain waves. some TM practitioners may show patterns of synchronized brain waves. 1980. Brain waves are quite weak. alert. we would find that these two EEGs are a mixedup bunch of waves scattered across several different frequencies. with little to no similarity at all. we shall now look at what goes on inside the brain during various forms of meditation. unless noted. 419. 1973. Advanced meditators with longer training histories seem to constitute a special case in terms of their physiology and depth of meditation. Warwick. 126.A SPECT scan proceeds in nearly the same way as a PET scan. 22 – 25. 1992. we might consider the following illustrative example: Let’s say that we simultaneously recorded the EEG activity from two different regions of our brain. pp. Transcendental Meditation As we saw in Section 1. 1994).

While many of the volunteers became relaxed to the point where they would fall asleep. the steady alpha and theta patterns seen on the meditators’ EEGs suggests that they were able to enter and maintain a mental state close to the boundary of wakefulness and sleep. this phenomenon tends to be more common among advanced meditators.. EEG and imaging studies have examined the brain’s activities during five types: Tantric.However. yet still remain awake. a finding consistent with the EEG patterns recorded in that same region (Wallace et al. 1977). While the brain waves of the non-meditator are largely scattered across different frequencies during the ordinary waking state. During a control .. In two studies (Corby et al. A comparison of the EEGs of a non-meditator (top) and a TM meditator (bottom). 1978. Elson et al. Figure 2. Kundalini Yoga can also involve focusing on a mantra while passively observing one’s breathing. 1975). 2000). and to date. Sahaja. In one imaging study (Lazar et al. brain wave activity was monitored in Tantric meditators as they sat in the lotus position and focused on the sound of a twosyllable Sanskrit word mantra. Tantric Yoga is marked by the attentional focus on a specific mantra. Kundalini.. those of the meditator show a consistent pattern of synchronization around 20 Hz during a deep meditative state (Ferguson.5 to 2 years of training had produced higher amounts of alpha and theta activity along the brain’s central midline. with the goal of attaining unity with it. if we repeated the process with a TM practitioner while he or she was in a deep state of meditation. 1971). The meditators also showed increased flow in their occipital lobes. which would be in line with the act of visualizing their mantra. meditators with an average of 1. we might find that their two EEGs show a fair degree of similarity. meditators with four years of Kundalini training underwent fMRI scanning while they silently repeated a two-phrase mantra in time with their breaths. 3.. Nidra. with the two wave patterns appearing to be in close alignment with each other (Figure 2). At least one imaging study has been done to further explore the areas of the brain that may be active during TM (Jevning et al. 1996). Compared to control volunteers who merely sat and relaxed.. As we shall see in Section 4. Changes in cerebral blood flow were monitored in 34 meditators as they focused on their mantra. the meditators showed increased flow in their frontal lobes. Yoga Meditation Several types of Yoga meditation are known to exist. Compared to relaxing control volunteers. and Iyengar.2. Similar to TM.

In two imaging studies (Kjaer et al. and temporal lobes became active. Finally.. parietal.. Whereas novices show more alpha in the occipital and rear parietal lobes (lower left). a possibility we shall examine further in Section 4. 2005). more neural activity was seen during the meditation in the anterior cingulate cortex. Lou et al. Compared to the novices. a neurochemical sometimes associated with feelings of pleasure (Schneider & Tarshis. In the late stages of the meditation. left column) and advanced (LTM. This suggests that the achievement of slower brain waves may partly be a function of meditation training history. Rather than mantra focusing. In contrast. p. as they attempted to generate a mental representation of their self. Then. Figure 3. areas surrounding the superior parietal lobule lit up with activity. wherein they "withdraw" from the desire to act and passively observe the bodily sensations and visual images that arise in their mind. 2002. 1995. In line with the ideas of Yoga Nidra. A comparison of the brain wave activity of novice (STM. which is meant to help open the way to the experience of an internally "blissful" state. and the PET scans indicated a higher release of dopamine. 2001. the meditators did not observe their breaths and turned their attention away from the mantra by silently thinking up a list of animal names. 2003). the frontal. 2003. looking down from the top of the head.period. right column) Sahaja Yoga meditators. Yoga Nidra meditators adopt a more neutral technique. In two studies (Aftanas & Golocheikine. several of the . advanced meditators show more theta in central region of the frontal lobes (top and center right) (Aftanas & Golocheikine. 154). several areas including the frontal lobe and the anterior cingulate cortex were activated in the meditators’ brains. when guided to visualize a serene rural landscape in summer. Instead of focusing their attention. the advanced meditators showed much more theta activity over their frontal lobes and the midline of their brains. 1999). and they reported more intense feelings of bliss. As they were guided to imagine the sensation of weight on various parts of their body. This suggests that brain regions associated with attention and control of autonomic nervous system are involved in this Yoga type. EEGs were recorded from both novice (less than six months of training) and advanced (3 to 7 years) Sahaja meditators as they attempted inward focus to reach the blissful state. visual regions in the occipital lobe became active. Sahaja Yoga emphasizes focusing one’s attention inward on internal processes and suppressing all other extraneous thoughts. the novices showed more alpha waves over their occipital lobes and the rear part of their parietal lobes (Figure 3). Compared to this control period. Monitoring of the meditators’ brain waves further revealed increases in theta activity during the meditation. meditators who had more than 5 years of Yoga Nidra training underwent PET scanning as they received a guided meditation.

the four individuals showed higher blood flow changes in their frontal lobes after the 12 weeks of training. an inverse relationship was observed between the blood flow in the frontal lobe and the blood flow in the superior parietal lobule. the nuns’ brains showed higher amounts of cerebral blood flow in various regions of the frontal lobe. In addition. the teachers showed higher activation in two areas of the frontal lobe associated with attention and the reflexive evaluation of thought (Figure 4). a change in the brain as a result of meditation training is one of the things that may distinguish advanced meditators from novices. 3. As we shall see in Section 4. 2003). which is meant to help them achieve the experience of "opening themselves to being in the presence of God" (p. 2009).. 626). Given its apparent role to spatial perception (Section 2).. Compared to a resting state." This was counteracted by an experience of intense sensory imagery. the blood flow changes in the superior parietal lobule may be related to the nuns’ experience of losing a usual sense of space. SPECT images were obtained from three Franciscan nuns who had more than 15 years of practice with "centering prayer. In the second study (Newberg et al. Compared to before their training. although it is the Christian-based form that has been the focus of two recent imaging studies. In the first study (Azari et al." in which they continually focus their attention on a prayer or a phrase from the Bible." In a study using SPECT (Cohen et al. indicating increased cerebral blood flow in the forward and central regions of the frontal lobe (Azari et al. 2001). the brains of four people were examined before and after they received a 12-week Iyengar training program in order to see how they might change. Compared to 6 non-religious control volunteers. as well as a "loss of will. Zen Meditation (Zazen) . Averaged PET scan results from 6 Evangelist teachers engaged in meditative prayer.3.. Figure 4. During such a profound experience. the nuns sometimes describe having "a loss of the usual sense of space" (p. such that as the flow in one increased.4. 626). Meditative Prayer Various forms of meditative prayer can be seen across several different religions. Iyengar Yoga combines meditation with the breathing and body posture exercises that are commonly associated with the term "yoga.meditators reported a reduction in the conscious control of their attention. 2001). 6 religious school teachers from a German Evangelist community received a PET scan while they attempted to briefly enter a religious meditative state by reciting the first verse of Psalm 23 in the Bible.. 3. the flow in the other decreased (and vice-versa).

the initiate focuses all of their attention on their breathing. In a sense. Vipassana ("Insight") Meditation So far.. In one of the earliest studies (Kasamatsu & Hirai.4 More intermediate disciples with 5 to 20 years of training had a tendency to exhibit a slowing of their brain waves. but rather to gain the focus necessary to achieve the enlightened state of Satori (see Table 1). usually by counting each of their breaths as they inhale and exhale at a steady rate. only a few studies have examined another sub-form of mindfulness meditation known as vipassana ("insight").) Three recent EEG studies of Zazen have been geared toward examining Su-soku. Takahashi et al. mixed in with some alpha. 2003). .. a meditator may go through an intensive training period known as Sesshin. novice disciples with 1 to 5 years of Zazen training were found to produce a steady pattern of alpha waves. 3. the meditator lets their attention freely wander about and observe various objects or processes. the sitting meditation of Zen Buddhism. 2005). with the goal of gaining equanimity (see Table 1) and clarity in their awareness. the meditator sits cross-legged on a round cushion with their hands enclosed. and then recorded their brain waves while they performed the technique. 2001. the brain wave activity of 16 Zen priests and 32 of their disciples was recorded during a period of Sesshin at a traditional Zen Buddhist training hall.To explore the brain physiology of mindfulness meditation. the meditator casts their gaze downward to look about one meter ahead as they centrally ponder a koan. 2001).5 To see how this practice of this technique might affect the brain. and that this activity was associated with changes in their heart rhythms. While meditating. several studies have directly focused on one of its sub-forms: Zazen. EEG activity in student volunteers practicing Su-soku.. An imaging study using fMRI also revealed activation of the frontal lobes in 11 Zazen meditators who engaged in Su-soku during the scanning session (Ritskes et al. indicating a possible link to the nervous system changes that are sometimes seen during meditation (Section 1). 1966). showing theta activity. further indicating the involvement of the frontal region in this technique. Murata et al. and then gradually broadens their attention outward to become passively aware of the range of internal and external stimuli present in their surroundings. Keeping their eyes open. in the mid-region of their frontal lobes (upper right) (Kubota et al. 2004. Japanese researchers briefly instructed three groups of college student volunteers in Su-soku. During Su-soku. The students’ EEGs indicated that theta and some alpha activity was present in the mid-region of their frontal lobes while practicing Su-soku (Figure 5). (We shall look at the priests in Section 4. a training technique usually given to Zen Buddhist initiates to help them adapt to the practice of Zazen (Kubota et al.. Figure 5. as indicated by drops in alpha wave frequency. in which they practice Zazen 8 to 10 times a day for approximately one week. even with their eyes open.3 The aim is not necessarily to produce an answer to the koan. in which the meditator initially attends to their present thoughts or to an internal bodily process (usually their breathing). During the practice of Zazen.. Occasionally.5.

theta) appearing in the front of the brain may contribute to the meditator’s calming of their mind. 1999).. temporal. beta) occurring in the back of the brain may at the same time keep the meditator alert and aware of their surroundings (Dunn et al.As a way to compare mindfulness with concentration meditation. The theta activity was localized primarily to the frontal lobes. the vipassana-like mindfulness meditation was associated with more brain wave activity in the delta. 4. 2007). alpha. close examination of their brain structure and function might be able to tell us something about the long-term effects of such practice. Compared to the latter. psychologist Bruce Dunn and his associates at the University of West Florida had taught a group of 10 college students how to meditate using a concentrative technique (focusing on their breaths. Studies with Advanced Meditators Given their long (five years or more) and often intense history of training. personal accounts of experiencing a "deep" or "higher" meditative state traditionally come from more advanced . Compared to a control group of non-meditators. Figure 6.. the students were asked to meditate using each technique while their EEGs were recorded.g. Compared to concentrative meditation. the former showed more activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (large yellow area) and the upper part of the frontal lobes (small yellow area) (Hölzel et al.g. First. To further explore the brain regions active during vipassana. many of these wave patterns appeared simultaneously in their respective brain regions. while the delta. these advanced meditators showed more activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and the upper middle part of their frontal lobes (Hölzel et al. similar to TM) and a mindfulness technique that closely resembles vipassana. alpha. alpha. Second. one might think that advanced meditators could be particularly revealing about what goes on inside the brain during the practice of meditation for two reasons. while faster brain waves (e. Curiously. and beta activity was spread out more across the frontal.. and parietal lobes.. and beta frequencies. An MRI comparison of the averaged brain activity of advanced meditators and non-meditators. German neuroscientist Dieter Vaitl and his associates at Justus-Liebig University had recruited 30 meditators with an average of 8 years of daily vipassana training and asked them to meditate on the breathing sensation in their nose while undergoing an fMRI scan. Dunn and his associates suggest that this may be consistent with the idea of meditation of being a state of "relaxed awareness": slow brain waves (e. 2007).. After a little over a month of practice with each technique. theta.

Some of the most interesting research with Buddhist monks so far has been conducted by psychologist Richard Davidson and radiologist Andrew Newberg. the findings suggest that the more years of practice that the monks had. 114). 2004). eight monks had shown strong gamma wave patterns and signs of EEG coherence (Section 3. each with more than 15 years of training. Their continual practice may help them develop the ability to slip into such a state quickly and easily. In addition. These findings are notably similar to those that Newberg and his associates obtained in a separate SPECT study of Franciscan nuns practicing meditative prayer (Newberg et al..1) across their frontal and parietal lobes while engaging in a Tibetan meditative technique meant to produce an inner state of "benevolence and compassion" toward living beings. an inverse relationship was found between the amount of blood flow in the frontal lobes and the amount in the superior parietal lobule such that as the flow in one region increased. but recently it has been possible to obtain the cooperation of several well-trained monks through the gracious assistance of His Holiness. In the other study (Brefczynski-Lewis et al. the Dalai Lama (Barinaga.1. This in turn may suggest that the more practiced the monks are in focusing their attention during meditation. Tibetan Buddhists One population of advanced meditators that could make valuable contributions to the study of the meditating brain is that of Tibetan Buddhist monks who have devoted a good part of their lives to the practice of meditation as part of their spiritual lifestyle. while a decrease was seen in the .. and thus.. 2004). as they quietly focused on a mental image with gradually increasing intensity. 4. fMRI scans of their brains indicated several regions in their frontal and parietal lobes that became activated. While doing so. the less activation they showed. Compared to a resting baseline. p. increased blood flow was observed in the frontal lobes (left image). Averaged SPECT results from eight Tibetan Buddhists engaged in focused meditation. 2003. see also Section 3. In one study (Lutz et al. all of which are thought to be involved in attention. Davidson and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin have performed two studies in which they were able to examine the brain waves of two groups of long-practicing (6 years or more) monks during two separate forms of meditation. Knight. 2003. In addition. Newberg and his associates at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center obtained SPECT scans from eight Tibetan Buddhists. increased blood flow was seen in their frontal lobes and the anterior cingulate cortex. they might offer some insight into the possible brain correlates of such states. Figure 7. brain) effort they have to exert in order to achieve a focused meditative state. Often times this has been difficult. 14 monks focused their attention completely on a small dot on a computer screen during their practice of the "one-pointed concentration" meditation.. the flow in the other decreased (and vice-versa) (Figure 7). During their focus. 2007).meditators (Section 1). the less mental (and thus.3). with the goal of attaining "a sense of absorption into the visualized image associated with clarity of thought and a loss of the usual sense of space and time" (Newberg et al. since many of the most accomplished monks have led reclusive lives in isolated Southeast Asian monasteries. 2001.

Hebert and D. 2001). a pattern of gamma waves appeared over areas in his occipital and parietal lobes that are involved in producing mental images. 1980. this time over regions in his frontal and parietal lobes that may be involved in selfperception and identification (Lehmann et al. While he was reciting. Ferguson. 2001). 1979." and then returning to his body.parietal lobes (right image) (Newberg et al. In the first two states. West. and. each of which he reported as a separate and profound experience... the Lama focused on a mental image of the Buddha appearing either in front of.1). 1973. Lehmann (1977) (Figure 8). These "theta bursts" were also later observed in the EEGs of 21 (27%) of the 78 long-term TM meditators studied by Swiss neuroscientists R. Once more. with the latter sometimes appearing as small "bursts" or "spikes" on the EEG record.2. Jevning et al. EEG studies of advanced TM meditators have shown a trend towards slower brain waves in the alpha and theta range. . Cahn & Polich. Transcendental Meditators A second population that could make valuable contributions is that of advanced Transcendental Meditators who have closely studied under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi or those teachers that he had personally trained and qualified. the Lama imagined his self transcending into a "boundless unity. 1975. a pattern of gamma waves appeared. according to the meditators. or just above.. 1975. For instance. gamma waves appeared over areas in his frontal and temporal lobes that have a role in speech. These bursts occurred about every two minutes during the meditation." or "emptiness. Neuroscientist Dietrich Lehmann and his colleagues at the University Hospital of Zurich. 1992. the Lama concentrated on a mantra composed of 100 syllables by verbally reciting a list of words containing that many syllables. During his visualization. they seem to be associated with peaceful and pleasant inner feelings of "drifting" or "sliding" (p. similar to that seen in novice and intermediate meditators (Banquet. Generally. 2006. 4. In the last two states. 401). French psychiatrist Jean-Paul Banquet (1973) noticed that as the brain wave patterns of 10 TM meditators slowed from alpha to theta. Woolfolk. In the third state. him. Switzerland. had the opportunity to record the EEG of a Buddhist Lama who was able to voluntarily self-induce five meditative states. although in some cases this trend seems to have been marked by unique characteristics. see also Section 3.

The alpha activity occurring over the frontal lobes is consistent with the findings of the only imaging study done to date with TM meditators (Jevning et al. which in the early stages of TM can be in the form of synchronized alpha and theta waves occurring across various regions of the brain (Jevning et al. Canadian neuroscientist Michael Persinger (1984) found that when a female TM meditator with 10 years of training had reported experiencing a meaning state of transcendence in which "she had felt being very close to ‘the cosmic whole’" (p. Similar beta wave patterns have apparently been observed in a few other meditators who have entered deep meditative states. Traditional Yogis Traditional Indian Yogis comprise a third population of advanced meditators who may contribute valuable data on the meditating brain. she had shown a brief "spike" pattern of very slow delta waves in her temporal lobe. 1996).3.1. Compared to a group of non-meditating control volunteers. a steady pattern of synchronized beta waves has been observed in early studies of advanced meditators. 1977). 22 – 25. 419). see Figure 2).. As with Tibetan Buddhist monks. 129). EEG activity recorded from an advanced Transcendental Meditator. In deep meditative states. p. showing brief "bursts" or "spikes" of theta activity mixed with in with alpha (Hebert & Lehmann..Figure 8. Banquet (1973) further noticed that four TM meditators who reported achieving the deep meditative state of "transcendence" had suddenly shown a much faster 20 Hz beta wave pattern on their EEG. brain wave synchronization can be exhibited by novice and intermediate meditators. 1980). 1975. As briefly mentioned in Section 3. pp. 18 meditators with 8 to 12 years of daily TM practice showed higher rates of cerebral blood flow over their frontal and occipital lobes. opportunities to locate accomplished Yogis who would be willing to participate in research have been limited because many of . 1992. 4. as well (West. 1999). EEG coherence has also been noted in some advanced TM meditators. On a separate note. A more recent analysis of the EEGs of 16 meditators with nearly 10 years of TM training further revealed signs of alpha wave coherence occurring over their frontal lobes during meditation (Travis & Wallace. as well (Ferguson.

and lightly touching them with a hot glass tube.. making loud bangs. While in their ordinary waking state. However. the two studies of Tantric Yoga summarized in Section 3. One of the earliest came in 1957. while meditating. even in the cold climate of the Himalayan foothills. In the first study (Corby et al. the researchers placed the Yogis’ hands in near-freezing (4ºC) water while they were meditating. Aside from field work. In the 1980s. 1977).them have resided in mountainous retreats and other secluded. 1961).2 also examined the brain wave activity of a small number of advanced Yoga meditators. The monks reportedly do not shiver throughout the process despite the exposure to the wet sheets and often cold atmosphere of the mountainous monastery. Consistent with Bagchi and Wenger’s (1957) finding. however. Anand and his colleagues also studied two Yogis who had apparently developed a high tolerance for pain during meditation. Anand and his colleagues were able to independently follow-up on the work of Bagchi and Wenger a few years later in a study of four Yogis (Anand et al. 1990). steady alpha activity was observed on their EEGs throughout the immersion period. In addition to novice and intermediate meditators. another type of Yoga meditation in which they reportedly become oblivious to any internal and external distractions in their surrounding environment while in the deeper state of mahanand ("ecstasy"). and lower finger temperatures while meditating (Wenger & Bagchi. K. EEG measurements that Benson and his associates collected during a follow-up study of three other monks showed increases in beta wave activity during g Tum-mo meditation (Benson et al. To explore this. As the monks meditated. out-of-the-way places. To explore this. With help from the Dalai Lama. and their goal is to fully dry the sheet using only the heat that is generated within their body during the meditation. .. the sheets were completely dried.. which handle sensory information coming from the body. the monks have reportedly been able to heat the sheets enough to make them give off steam. and after about 45 minutes. to the point where they would sometimes not be countable. higher blood pressure and skin conductance in their palms. Harvard psychiatrist Herbert Benson and his associates were able to visit three Buddhist monks in India who had practiced g Tum-mo for more than 6 years to conduct a more formal exploration of the heating phenomenon. the Yogis showed faster heart rates. Compared to a group of yoga students. they showed no response. Benson and his associates measured the skin temperature at various points on their bodies. Indian physiologist B. p. laboratory studies of advanced Yoga meditators have provided useful insight.. 1961. they were able to measure changes in the autonomic nervous system of five older Yogis as they sat perfectly still in the lotus position and meditated. which was not interrupted by any of these stimulations. and the Yogis were indeed able to keep their hands immersed for nearly an hour without experiencing any signs of discomfort. 1957). 315). 1961). and a cave dwelling high up in the Himalayas. No EEG signals were seen in their parietal lobes. Whereas a majority of the novice meditators spent between 4 and 32% of their time in a meditative state that was marked by the presence of theta waves. Their breaths were also noted to become very slow and shallow. even while still maintaining a fairly normal heart rate (Benson et al. two hermitages. the bare bodies of the monks are each wrapped in a sheet that has been soaked in ice-cold water. Their journey took them to three Indian laboratories. suggesting that they indeed were showing no signs of a response to the ice-cold water (Anand et al. the four Yogis each showed a steady pattern of alpha waves. Using a portable transistor polygraph. 1982). The EEG recordings tended to show a steady alpha wave pattern throughout the meditation period. Each of the Yogis was proficient in Raj Yoga. These measurements indicated that the monks were able to increase the temperature in their fingers and toes by as much as 8ºC while meditating. with little sign of any other change (Bagchi & Wenger. a field study was made of a group of Buddhist monks who practice an advanced type of Yoga meditation known as g Tum-mo.. when UCLA researchers Basu Bagchi and Marion Wenger had traveled to India in order to conduct explore the physiological aspects of Yogic meditation and exercise. EEG data were collected from a Yogic monk and teacher who had received just over two years of special advanced training. which ostensibly allows the meditator to produce notable rises in their body temperature. Anand and his colleagues monitored the EEGs of the meditating Yogis while trying to externally stimulate them by flashing a bright light. None of the Yogis reported reaching a deep meditative state during the monitoring sessions. Within 3 to 5 minutes of beginning their meditation. As with the other four Yogis. each of the Yogis clearly responded to each of the stimulations. either overtly or on their EEG.6 As a way to informally demonstrate the heating effect of g Tum-mo.

. the data gathered by Kasamatsu and Hirai (1966) suggest that the appearance of the theta pattern is related to the amount of Zazen training that the meditator has had. the Yogi showed a sharp drop in his breathing rate to only 5 breaths per minute." similar to that seen in TM meditators (Section 4. Researchers at San Francisco State University conducted a physiological study of a Japanese Yogi who was highly proficient in the practice of Kundalini Yoga. Woolfolk. p. her meditation period was marked by alpha activity and large amounts of theta waves that occasionally came in small "bursts.3). In line with this observation. Neurologist R. Japanese researchers Akira Kasamatsu and Tomio Hirai (1966) were able to record the meditating EEGs of 16 Zen priests and 32 of their disciples during a period of Sesshin. suggesting that his brain was capable of voluntarily shifting between brain waves and their associated mental states. EEG monitoring indicated that the Swami was able to voluntarily make a continuous transition between the various types of brain waves during deep meditation.2). 2001). 2009. 587. which persisted for several minutes afterward. this alpha pattern would gradually slow down into a rhythmic pattern of theta waves. 2007. suggesting that these progressive EEG changes may be the fruits of regular long-term practice. 1978). Murali Krishna (2005) recently reported an exploratory study with an Indian Swami and teacher of Nithya Yoga during a visit to his clinic in Oklahoma. this theta pattern would take the form of short "bursts" or "spikes. the right parietal and temporal lobes.5. 574). Vipassana Meditators . something not seen in any of the novice meditators. the meditator’s brains were increasingly active in the left side of the frontal lobe. A group of Danish psychologists was recently able to examine the activity in the brain at the beginning of Zen meditation in an fMRI study with five meditators who had between 7 and 23 years of training (Bærentsen et al. All of them had visited India to meet the leader of their spiritual organization. However. and was followed afterward by an increase in theta waves (Arambula et al. the priests tended to exhibit further progression of their EEG activity. and electrical skin resistance had sharply increased. PET scans of the Swami’s brain during meditation revealed increased metabolic activity in the forward parts of his frontal lobe. 1975. About 20 seconds later. the priests would show the alpha patterns over the frontal lobes typically seen in the disciples. During that experience..the monk had spent 86% of his time in this state. her breathing. 84 – 87. At the end of the Zazen period. one of these advanced meditators had reportedly experienced a "near-Samadhi" state in which she had the feeling of "having my breathing taken over by the mantra" (p. and the anterior cingulate cortex. In contrast. Zen Meditators As with Indian Yogis. Ivanovski & Malhi. suggesting that he was more adept at producing these slower brain waves. 4. a decrease in activity was seen in the visual regions of the occipital lobe." similar to that seen in the EEGs of some TM and Yoga meditators (Sections 4." the lower central region of his frontal lobe lit up with activity. after about 30 minutes. Similarly. 2001). 1330). This theta pattern persisted on the monk’s EEG even after he had stopped meditating and had opened his eyes. largely due to the efforts of local researchers. While meditating on a massage table in a position similar to the half-lotus. heart rate. While no clear EEG changes occurred during her experience.. 4. In the mid-1960s. A few minutes after beginning Zazen.2 & 4. as indicated by his bestowed title of Yoga Samrat from the Indian Yoga Culture Federation. a return to the alpha pattern was seen. Alpha activity increased on his EEG during his meditation. Findings from later EEG studies of Zazen further supported this relation (Chiesa. opportunities to obtain valuable data on the meditating brain from Zen Buddhist monks can be traced to an early history. As the Swami reported the experience of "opening his Third Eye. Whereas the disciples had a tendency to show steady alpha waves even with their eyes open (Section 3. at the onset of their meditation.4. While focusing on a mantra. p. the advanced meditators participating in the second study had shown higher amounts of theta activity than intermediate meditators (Corby et al. with the pattern appearing largely in meditators with more than 20 years of training. The fMRI scans revealed that. and had received the most advanced set of meditation techniques.2). pp. In addition.

perhaps due to greater neural cell proliferation in those areas. in which they recorded the EEGs of volunteers at a corporate firm both before and after they received an 8-week training program in a simple form of mindfulness meditation designed to help reduce stress." The possibility that even a short period of regular practice in meditation may produce functional changes in the brain was initially explored in a study by psychologist Richard Davidson and his associates at the University of Wisconsin. and the left temporal lobe (Hölzel et al. the thickness of our brain’s cerebral cortex tends to get thinner with age.. and other forms of meditation.. the team found larger volumes of gray matter in the hippocampus. 20 meditators who had an average of 8. Yale University. and MIT. In some cases. a team of neurologists at the UCLA School of Medicine recently made a further attempt to extend these findings to a wider variety of meditators. A group of control volunteers who did not take the training program showed little to no such signs of alpha increase. in . a unique ability not often seen in the EEGs of non-meditators. Yoga. These findings suggest that meditation may help slow this process in cortical areas around the frontal lobe. They recruited 20 meditators who had an average of 9 years of training in vipassana and measured the thickness of the neural tissue in their cerebral cortex using an advanced form of MRI.7 Compared to non-meditating control volunteers. 2008). to achieve EEG coherence. These results suggest that certain areas regularly active in the brains of long-term meditators may structurally alter themselves over time. The program volunteers also reported having less anxiety and fewer negative feelings than the control volunteers (Davidson et al. these alpha and theta patterns may briefly linger even after one has slipped out of the meditative state and returned to the normal waking state. 2009). 2004).. led by psychiatrist Sara Lazar. such that the masses of tissue around these regions slightly thickens. including central regions of the frontal lobe. which we might call "training effects. Discussion The experimental findings reviewed here tentatively suggest that the meditative state may induce shortterm changes in brain activity that are in line with the dual views of meditation as a technique of relaxation. Using the same MRI technique. More long-term effects of meditation practice were explored in an imaging study conducted by a team of researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital. Scanning the brains of 22 meditators who had an average of 24 years of training in vipassana. the hippocampus. and as a technique of mental cultivation. Harvard Medical School. the volunteers showed more alpha activity in the left central region of their brain after the relatively short program. The mental cultivation aspect is perhaps best reflected by advanced meditators in their ability to frequently produce and maintain steady alpha and theta rhythms. a potential health benefit. and. as well as an area between the frontal and temporal lobes known as the insula.. Compared to a group of non-meditating control volunteers. based on EEG monitoring. Zazen. Compared to before the program. and the lower part of the frontal lobe (Luders et al. known as gray matter. Although their individual techniques and philosophies somewhat differ. In most cases.6 years of vipassana training showed greater concentrations of gray matter near the insula. the meditators showed indications of thicker tissue in cortical regions that have been found to be active during meditation. As one enters a meditative state. 5. brain wave activity begins to slow and ease into frequencies in the alpha and theta range.Recent studies of advanced vipassana meditators have made a preliminary effort in exploring another aspect of the meditating brain: the possible effects that regular practice in meditation may have on the structure and function of the brain. the left temporal lobe. frequencies commonly associated with relaxation and low arousal. or begins to concentrate more in these areas. 2005). which is involved in the perception of internal bodily responses (Lazar et al. Neuroscientist Dieter Vaitl and his associates at Justus-Liebig University in Germany extended the findings of Lazar’s team by using MRI to measure the masses of neural cell tissue that comprise the cerebral cortex. the various forms of meditation that we have looked at here seem to share the basic commonality of being able to gradually induce a calmer state of mind.

2004). Though gradual over time. Although it is most often associated with low arousal and light sleep. 1990). and thereby work against age-related thinning of its cortical tissue. 1994. such effects would likely serve as a health benefit of regular meditative practice. there is now some evidence to suggest that theta activity occurring around the frontal and midline regions of the brain can sometimes be associated with attention and mental concentration (Inanaga. Walsh & Shapiro. and these two brain regions. If these findings are valid. 2003). 1999). can be characterized by intense dream-like images that occur as one is falling asleep. and are under greater voluntary control. Some studies suggest that the anterior cingulate cortex is also involved in the regulation of some functions of the autonomic nervous system (Devinsky et al.. including deep meditative states. however.. theta waves. to enter the meditative state with relatively little mental effort. Posner & Petersen. which emphasize mental development in order to encourage beneficial thought processes (calmness and concentration) and positive emotions (love and joy). and reduce negative ones. These frequencies are usually associated with heightened alertness and complex cognitive thought processes. such as fear and anger (Goleman. In contrast. often called a hypnagogic state. the so-called "hard problem" of consciousness (Chalmers. suggesting that a form of "focused arousal" might characterize these states. in a sense. Klimesch. 1991. 1991) and the anterior cingulate cortex (Devinsky et al. adding new meaning to the old adage that "practice makes perfect... Regular practice may also bring about training-related changes in the grey matter of the cerebral cortex. which are suggestive of a state maintained at the boundary between wakefulness and the early stages of sleep. and electrical skin resistance that are sometimes observed in meditators. through continual training of their attention and awareness. including the hippocampus. On a separate note. insight that may be valuable in the quest to develop an answer to the problem of how neural processes in our brain give rise to conscious experience. and various parts of the brainstem (Newberg & Iversen." The role of the theta rhythm may also be relevant to the issue of which brain areas are activated in meditation. such as the frontal lobes (Frith et al. brain wave activity tends to speed up rather than slow down. the experimental findings with advanced meditators offer us a bit of insight into the possible brain correlates of deep or higher meditative states. 1988. One might argue that in order for us to gain a better understanding of consciousness in general. 2006). 1994.. it seems that meditation may be a complex mental process involving several other components of the autonomic nervous system and the brain. such as how to juggle (Draganski et al.5). This may be only one part of the equation. The possibility that one’s attention is harnessed and developed during meditation may be supported by the finding that several forms of meditation engage cortical regions that may be part of a network of brain areas involved in attention. EEG observations of TM meditators and Buddhist monks seem to indicate that as one enters a deep meditative state. the amygdala. we must be able to consider all forms of it. 1995). then they may indicate that it is possible to. The steady presence of alpha and theta could mean that Yoga and Zen meditators . which may tie in to the changes in breathing. Ingvar. One study has produced findings to indicate that this kind of theta rhythm may be reflective of alternating activity between the frontal lobes and the anterior cingulate cortex (Asada et al.the case of Buddhist monks. Such a capacity would be consistent with the traditional perspectives on meditation expressed in Buddhism and Taoism8. This boundary state. 1995). 1999).. Pardo et al. 1995. "re-structure" the brain through persistent practice so that it adapts to function more effectively in performing a complex skill. heartrate. providing a possible key link between meditation. observations of Yoga and Zen meditators seem to indicate that deep states occurring in these practices are more often marked by constant alpha and theta patterns. The regular engagement of the frontal lobe may promote neural activity and proliferation in that region. these individuals have been able to gradually develop and refine their mental and brain processes to a point where they are capable of operating more coherently. These feats seem to suggest that. approaching frequencies in the beta and gamma range. suggesting that there is some degree of flexibility in the way our brains are structured. as suggested by the training effects observed in vipassana meditators (Section 4. It is interesting to note that similar training effects on grey matter have been observed in the brains of people who are just learning a new skill. Posner & Dehaene. 1998.

psychologists Roger Walsh and Shauna Shapiro (2006) have argued that there is much that the two disciplines can learn from each other. 2008). it is wise to view these findings as "tentative" at the present. Due to the paucity of the research. It should be noted that although many studies point toward a beneficial effect. and it is hoped that further EEG research with meditators capable of entering deep states will shed more light on this interesting and important aspect of consciousness. and blood plasma changes. Alternatively. but with further work. the consistency of their findings is limited by their experimental design. If this is a genuine effect. so it may be useful to have a daily period of meditation as part of one’s health regimen. Even though they may take different perspectives. while Buddhists can offer psychology and neuroscience a broader perspective on introspection and subjective experience. To explore this issue. Conclusion Based on our review of the experimental findings. For example.are capable of inducing and maintaining a hypnagogic state while still remaining awake. skin resistance. while others are associated with fast frequencies associated with complex cognitive thought processes. For about 2. long-term practice. which tend to be subjectively different from the ordinary waking state of consciousness. p. what lessons might we be able to take away about the meditating brain? The first lesson may be a practical one for our health: Aside from calming our minds. methods. 2004. it may be beneficial in the long run to keep it up! Another lesson we might be able to take away is one about deep meditative states. Upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. The limited research with advanced meditators suggests that these states. 670). a closer statistical evaluation of the research by TM researchers Michael Dillbeck and David Orme-Johnson (1987) found significantly more decreases in these processes in meditators than in resting control volunteers. the findings tentatively suggest that the practice of meditation may help slow the thinning of cortical tissue in our frontal regions that naturally occurs with age. 6. we might be able to take away a lesson about cultural approaches to the human mind. Lastly. (Because of its calming effects. if you practice meditation on a regular basis. as noted above. and variety of meditative techniques explored (Ospina et al. Based on a simple "vote-counting" comparison. Western psychology shares this same focus of exploration and contemplation using empirical techniques. these ideas remain speculative. Thus. and the waking-sleep threshold. then perhaps the images produced during such a state comprise part of a deep Yogic or Zen meditative state. then it seems to be associated with regular. His Holiness the Dalai Lama once stated: "Both science and the teachings of the Buddha tell us of the fundamental unity of all things" (Knight. with further direction to be offered by future research. 2. Notes 1. one would expect meditation to show sharper decreases in these processes than rest. there is little we can conclude at the moment. If that is so.500 years. the findings from psychology and neuroscience can aid Buddhists in more deeply exploring their firstperson insights and mental states. may have a partial basis in activity at both ends of the brain wave frequency spectrum. 2003). constant theta activity focused over the frontal and midline regions may reflect a state of deep attentional focus or concentration. two things that are vital in linking the workings of the brain to mental behavior (Barinaga. While these have been improving with time. The study of meditation is one way that this path of knowledge can be facilitated.. Some deep states appear to be linked with slow frequencies associated with deep relaxation. . At its heart. Buddhism has offered a spiritual means of personally exploring the inner self and contemplating the nature of the mind using techniques of deep introspection. as well (see Note 1). One issue that has been raised is whether the calming effects of meditation are any different from the calmness that can be achieved through simple rest. For now. it might just lead to a greater advancement in our quest to better understand the human mind. University of Kansas psychologist David Holmes (1984) reviewed the research comparing rest with meditation (the latter being TM in most cases). there may be some indication that meditation is different from simple rest. Thus. low arousal.) However. what we learn about them can be potentially valuable for gaining a better understanding of the boundaries of consciousness that lie at the edge of the hard problem. he found little difference between them with regards to physiological processes such as heartrate. If a mutual consideration of these two disciplines can lead to a unity of knowledge and perspective. both past and present. although this finding should be considered tentative.

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