Understanding the Multidimensionality of Meditation

February 6, 2017
Arnaud Delorme, IONS Scientist

The amount of research and scientific literature on meditation has increased exponentially in the past 15 years, and today we find significant interest in meditation research at major universities and medical facilities worldwide.

While meditation research has become ubiquitous, the term meditation is often used broadly, in a manner that reflects neither the richness of the underlying traditions nor the multitude of meditation practices that exist. This has led to both confusion and lack of clarity in the results of meditation research.

For example, in focusing meditation practices, meditators focus specifically on one thing. This can be a mantra (a sequence of sounds one repeats internally), or a visualization of deities (in the Tibetan tradition). On the other end of the spectrum, there are open monitoring awareness meditation practices, where meditators simply observe their own minds. This encompasses mindfulness and some Zen practices. Vipassana is another meditation practice that lies between open monitoring and focusing meditation practices, during which meditators perform mental body scans.

Until now, and despite obvious differences, all these practices have been lumped under the single label “meditation.” This has often led to conflicting results when looking at the brain activity associated with meditation practice. While one researcher may claim to observe an increase in alpha brainwaves in the EEG during meditation, another may claim to observe faster gamma increase. Of course, they may both be right, and the difference might be in the type of meditation they are looking at.

I am a long-time meditator, and this sparked a professional interest that led to looking at this issue with my students and other collaborators. I conducted a 4-year data collecting effort in India on three different meditation traditions: one focusing meditation, one open monitoring meditation, and one that falls between the two. I also compared the brainwaves of these meditators with the brainwaves of control participants who were not meditating.

What I learned is that all meditation traditions seem to have a higher amplitude of gamma brainwaves compared to controls. Brain activity in the gamma frequency band — previously observed in Tibetan Buddhist monks — has been associated with consciousness. However, this is the first time a comprehensive study actually shows that this type of feature is common to multiple meditation traditions. This brain activity, localized in the anterior cingulate cortex, may underlie the deeper sense of self or being that is experienced in all mediation traditions, and may be at the root of the mind-body connection.

As we uncover the physiological correlates of specific types of meditation, such results might not only help us better understand the nature and dimensions of human consciousness, but could also lead to additional clinical applications.

A paper detailing this research has been published in the Public Library of Science and is available for public download. The research was funded by the BIAL Foundation and the Mind and Life Institute.

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