The latest research findings show that different techniques of meditation change the brain in different ways. Drs. Travis and Shear conducted a study in which they classified meditation practices into three categories: 1) focused attention meditation, which entails voluntary and sustained attention on a chosen word, phrase, or object; 2) open monitoring meditation, which involves non-reactive monitoring of the moment-to-moment content of experience; and 3) automatic self-transcending, which involves transcending or going beyond our normal experience of life to experience a more unbound state of self-awareness without any specific thoughts or feelings, other than the sound value of a very specific word or mantra.
The first form of meditation, we mentioned, focused attention meditation, involves control or attention on a particular image or emotion. For example, in Tibetan Buddhist loving-kindness-compassion meditation, the focus of attention is on loving-kindness toward other human beings. When the mind wanders from this emotion, the meditator brings the attention back in a focused manner.
The second, open monitoring style of meditation, involves non-judging awareness of immediate experience. For example, in Buddhist mindfulness meditation, there can be monitoring of the breath as well as monitoring thoughts as they arise, without any judgement or reaction.
The third, automatic self-transcending, involves the effortless thinking of a sound or mantra without any concentration or contemplation. If we think of the mind as an ocean, its surface layers active with tossing waves and the deeper levels silent and still, the surface level of the ocean represents our conscious mind. A thought begins from the deepest level of consciousness, travels up through the whole depth of our mind, and appears at the surface as a conscious thought. During the practice of Transcendental Meditation technique, our attention is allowed to be spontaneously and automatically drawn to quieter, deeper states of mental activity, until the finest level of thought is eventually transcended and we experience a state without perception or thought, pure consciousness by itself.
Brain activity during each of these meditation techniques has been studied using both EEG (electroencephalography) and by brain imaging techniques. EEG is the measurement of the electrical activity of the brain. Electrodes are painlessly place on the scalp and electrical signals from the brain are then recorded. The EEG recordings, called brain waves, are analyzed in different ways. The simplest approach is to determine their frequency. Typically, we find the slower frequencies, called delta waves, are associated with sleep, while the faster frequencies, called beta and gamma waves, are indicative of a more lively and attentive state of consciousness. In between these two are the middle frequencies known as theta waves and alpha waves, which are associated with sitting quietly in a relaxed state, like a car idling at a stop sign, but ready to go forward.
There are different types of brain imaging technologies, such as CT scanning (x-rays), PET scan (radioactive tracer), and MRI and fMRI (magnetic and radio waves). These technologies make it possible to precisely identify separate parts of the brain and determine the particular activity of each.
The focused attention styles of meditation produce rapid gamma and beta EEG waves in the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain. In one study on Tibetan Buddhist loving-kindness-compassion meditation, the researchers used brain imaging techniques (fMRI) and found significant activity in areas (including the thalamus, caudate, putamen, right insula, and anterior cingulate) associated with sensory processing, emotions, and attention
EEG recordings from Zen meditation, Vipassana meditation, and Sahaja Yoga, all “open monitoring” styles of meditation, show an increase in slower theta waves in the frontal and parietal lobes. Brain imaging studies on Buddhist mindfulness meditation have shown an increased cortical thickness in the certain areas (middle prefrontal areas and right insula).
In automatic transcending, the category which primarily includes the Transcendental Meditation technique, brain imaging techniques reveal a decrease in activity of the thalamus (concerned with sensory processing), and an increase in the frontal areas of the brain which are concerned with executive functions. EEG recording show an increase primarily in alpha wave activity.
Early studies on the TM technique revealed this increase in the alpha waves, especially in the frontal parts of the brain. More recent studies, using complex mathematical analysis, have used a measure of brain activity called EEG coherence. High coherence means greater orderliness and integration. It is similar to a type of synchronization, a linking together between the different parts of the brain. Higher coherence indicates, for example, that there is more communication between the two halves of the brain, or between the front and back of the brain. During TM there is an increase in EEG coherence especially in the alpha waves in the frontal areas of the brain. This higher state of integration during Transcendental Meditation has been correlated with a number of improvements in mental functions such as increased intelligence and creativity.
Dr Travis and co-workers have found that the most striking change is measurements of EEG alpha wave coherence in the TM subjects during activity. The longer a person practice TM the greater the increase in frontal EEG alpha wave EEG coherence. This is particularly significant because Dr Travis has shown in several studies that a higher level of frontal EEG alpha wave coherence is associated with better performance in both business and sports. The conclusion is that higher frontal EEG alpha wave coherence is a sign of a more efficient and effective style of brain functioning. Dr Travis has also developed the Brain Integration Scale (BRI) to evaluate the growth of consciousness. The BRI uses three measures: EEG alpha coherence, EEG alpha power, and a further measure of brain activity (Contingent Negative Variation or CNV) during a choice reaction time test.
A study performed a number of years ago by pioneering TM researcher Dr. David Orme-Johnson, showed the effects of TM technique on how we react to stress. Meditators were presented with stressful stimuli and their responses were measured. The results were compared to a non-meditating control group who were given the same experimental conditions. The TM group adapted to the stressful stimuli far more quickly than the controls. They were able to bounce back from the stress and be more effective in their actions. The reorganization of the brain during meditation results in many positive changes in mental and physical health.
A few studies which have used statistical procedures, called meta-analysis, to compared the effects of different meditation and relaxation techniques on measures such as blood pressure and trait anxiety. In one meta-analysis, 107 studies were conducted, involving over 900 participants. Results showed that TM significantly reduced both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. None of the other treatments, which ranged from simple biofeedback, relaxation-assisted biofeedback, and progressive muscle relaxation, to stress management training, had any effect whatsoever on blood pressure. In another meta-analysis, over 100 studies were examined on trait anxiety and it was again found that the effects of TM were significantly more than any of the other meditation or relaxation procedures.
Over the past twenty years scientific studies have confirmed the remarkable effects of the TM program on blood pressure and other major cardiovascular risk factors. Indeed, over 20 million dollars worth of grants from the National Institutes of Health have been awarded to conduct these studies. Done in collaboration with major medical schools and hospitals, these studies repeatedly show that TM significantly reduces both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, particularly in patients who have recently developed the condition.
Another area of further interest concerns a condition called metabolic syndrome, which involves a combination of factors: high blood pressure, obesity, high blood sugar, and high blood cholesterol. Many believe this condition is related to an abnormality in the hormone insulin. One of the important functions of insulin is to allow blood sugar to go from the blood into the cells, but when there is a condition called insulin resistance, insulin cannot function properly and is unable to do its job. In a randomly controlled study conducted by Dr. Noel Bairey Merz and colleagues at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, it was found that TM had a positive impact on metabolic syndrome, with improvement in the action of insulin (improved insulin sensitivity) accompanied by a decrease in blood pressure.
One clinical study by Dr. Amparo Castillo-Richmond and co-workers, examined the effects of TM on hardening of the carotid arteries, the vessels that carry blood to the brain. The study involved 138 hypertensive African American volunteer participants who were randomly assigned to either a health education group or a TM group, and took place over a nine-month period with no changes in participants’ diet, exercise, or substance use. Results showed that the thickness of the inner lining of the carotid artery (the intima) increased slightly in the control group and significantly decreased in the TM group. These results reveal that a mental technique, Transcendental Meditation, is able to actually reverse the effects of arteriosclerosis, (hardening of the arteries).
The most significant recent study on TM and health is by Dr. Robert Schneider and colleagues, conducted at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Measured over five years, 201 middle-aged and elderly African Americans, with an average age of 58, were randomly assigned to either a health education group or to a TM group. The measurements used were hard endpoints: heart attacks, strokes, and deaths. There was a 48% risk reduction in hard endpoint measures.
For more details on TM research see the following books by Dr Wallace all available on Amazon.
- An Introduction to Transcendental Meditation: Improve Your Brain Functioning, Create Ideal Health, and Gain Enlightenment Naturally, Easily, Effortlessly by Robert Keith Wallace, PhD, and Lincoln Akin Norton, Dharma Publications, 2016
- Transcendental Meditation: A Scientist’s Journey to Happiness, Health, and Peace, Adapted and Updated from The Physiology of Consciousness: Part 1 by Robert Keith Wallace, PhD, Dharma Publications, 2016
- The Neurophysiology of Enlightenment: How the Transcendental Meditation and TM-Sidhi Program Transform the Functioning of the Human Body, Adapted and Updated from The Physiology of Consciousness: Part 2 by Robert Keith Wallace, PhD, Dharma Publications, 2016
- Drs. Fred Travis and Jonathan Shear, Focused attention, open monitoring and automatic self-transcending: Categories to organize meditations from Vedic, Buddhist and Chinese traditions, Consciousness and Cognition 19 (2010)
- Travis, F.T., Tecce, J., Arenander, A., Wallace, R.K. (2002). Patterns of EEG Coherence, Power, and Contingent Negative Variation Characterize the Integration of Transcendental and Waking States. Biological Psychology, 61, 293-319
- Harung HS, Travis F. (2012). Higher mind-brain development in successful leaders: testing a unified theory of performance. Cognitive Processing, 13: 171-181
- Travis, F.T. & Wallace R.K. (1999). EEG and Autonomic Patterns during Eyes-Closed Rest and Transcendental Meditation Practice: The Basis for a Neural Model of TM practice. Consciousness and Cognition, 8, 302-318
- Travis, F.T. & Wallace R.K. (1997) Autonomic Patterns during Respiratory Suspensions: Possible markers of Transcendental Consciousness. Psychophysiology, 34: 39-46.
- Orme-Johnson D.W. Autonomic stability and Transcendental Meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine 35, 341-349, 1973
- Rainforth, M. V., Schneider, R. H., Nidich, S. I., Gaylord-King, C., Salerno, J. W., Anderson, J. W. (2007). Stress reduction programs in patients with elevated blood pressure: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Current Hypertension Reports, 9 (6): 520–528.
- Eppley, K., Abrams, A., Shear, J. (1989). Differential effects of relaxation techniques on trait anxiety: a meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 45 (6): 957–974.
- Alexander, C. N., Rainforth, M., & Gelderloos, P. (1991). Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6, 189–247.
- Anderson J.W., et al. Blood pressure response to Transcendental Meditation: a meta-analysis. American Journal of Hypertension 21 (3): 310-6, 2008
- Paul-Labrador M., et al. Effects of randomized controlled trial of Transcendental Meditation on components of the metabolic syndrome in subjects with coronary heart disease. Archives of Internal Medicine 166:1218-1224, 2006
- Castillo-Richmond A., et al. Effects of the Transcendental Meditation Program on carotid atherosclerosis in hypertensive African Americans, Stroke 31: 568-573, 2000
- Schneider et al published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, in press