What you will learn from reading The Science of Meditation:
– An understanding of the areas of the brain affected by meditation.
– The different types of meditation and their benefits.
– How to reap the benefits, but more importantly how to make them stay.
“Meditation is like a gym in which you develop the powerful mental muscles of calm and insight.”
Types of Meditation
Mediation is often split into 2 categories, Wide and Deep:
- Wide: Think of wide meditation as having gone through a filtration system, leaving behind the more introspective qualities and the historical Asian routes, while maintaining the heart of the practice so that it can be adapted to the largest number of people.
- Deep: Deep on the other hand is the more intense type of meditation. It is deeply embedded into Asian traditions and is something that requires more concentration.
We can look at meditation like a spectrum. At one end is deep meditation and at the other is wide. The deep is normally associated with the Asian roots, and the wide with the West. As we make the transition from deep to wide, we lose a lot of qualities that might not make the cross-cultural journey so easily. So in other words we are basically simplifying it.
What you do determines what you get. In sum, “mediation” is not a single activity but a wide range of practices, all acting in their own particular ways in the mind and brain.
HEP: Health enhancement Program – music therapy with relaxation; nutritional education and movement exercises.
MBSR: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
HEP and MBSR and most other variations of meditation report benefits in the early stages of practice can be chalked up to expectations, social bonding in the group, instructor enthusiasm, or other “demand characteristics.” Rather than being from meditation per se, any reported benefits may simply be signs that people have positive hopes and expectations.
Best definition: Your ability to maintain focus as you count your breaths, one by one.
Focus and Concentration
Meditation is embedded in the idea of concentration and focus, so naturally we need to start with the basics by focusing on the most mundane things such as patches of colour, points on the wall, etc. the most sort after choice is usually the breath.
As our concentration strengthens, wandering thoughts subside rather than pulling us down some back alley of the mind. The stream of thought flows more slowly, like a river – and finally rests in the stillness of a lake, as an ancient metaphor for settling the mind in meditation practice tells us.
Sustained focus, brings the first major sign of progress, “access concentration,” where attention stays fixed on the chosen target without wandering off.
The optimum peak of concentration is called Jhana “neither perception nor non perception.”
Although meditation helps your ability to concentrate, a lot of deep meditation is about inner concentration – introspection.
States & Traits
One of the main messages in the book is this concept of ‘The after is the before for the net during.’ What does it mean? Well let’s break it down a bit.
If you were to envisage an expert meditator, the benefits they experience are the same that you experience just after meditating when you’re a beginner, it’s just that it lasts, a state becomes a trait.
The goal is to establish the healthy states as predominant, lasting traits, default states.
While immersed in deep concentration, a meditator’s unhealthy states are suppressed, but can emerge as strong as ever when the concentrative state subsides.
A highly advanced practitioner effortlessly stabilise on the healthy side.
Neuroplasticity (the brains way of adapting and reorganising the brains neurons to respond to how your brain works) shows that repeated experience can change the brain, shaping it. We don’t have to choose between nature or nurture. They interact, each moving the other.
Neuroplasticity offers a scientific basis for how repeated training could create those lasting qualities of being we had encountered in a handful of exceptional yogis.
So what this means is that by consistently meditating and reaping the benefits, our brains learn to adapt to this repetitive exercise and create the best environment for the benefits to thrive, in turn making the state a trait.
In contemplative science, an altered state refers to changes that occur only during meditation. An altered trait indicates that the practice of meditation transformed the brain and biology so that meditation-included changes are seen before beginning to meditate.
So a state by trait effect refers to temporary state changes that are seen only in those who display enduring altered traits.
While they rest in ‘open presence,’ the very distinction between a state and a trait blurs.
Quieting your Amygdala
Our prefrontal cortex (the area of our brain that is responsible for rational thinking and decision making), gives us both a unique advantage among all animals and a paradoxical disadvantage: the ability to anticipate the future – and worry about it – as well as to think about the past – and regrets.
Being mindful of the breath lowers activity in the amygdala (the area of our brain that is responsible for emotional responses).
The amygdala, which has a privileged role as the brains radar for threat: it receives immediate input from our senses, which it scans for safety or danger. If it perceives a threat, the amygdala circuitry triggers the brains freeze-fight-or-flight response, a stream of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that mobilise us for action. The amygdala also responds to anything important to pay attention to, whether we like or dislike it.
The amygdala connects strongly to brain circuitry for both focusing our attention and for intense emotional reactions.
When injured, different brain systems mobilise, some for the pure sensations of pain and others for our dislike of that pain. The brain unifies them into visceral, instant ouch. But that unity falls apart when we practice mindfulness of the body, spending hours noticing our bodily sensations in great detail. As we sustain this focus, our awareness morphs. What had been a painful pinch, transforms, breaking down into its constituents: the intensity of the pinch and the painful sensation, and the emotional feeling tone.
Meditation the theory goes, might mute our emotional response to pain to a degree.
Zen students displayed little activity in executive, evaluative, and emotion areas during the pain. Their brains seemed to disconnect the usual link between executive centre circuits where we evaluate (this hurts) and circuitry for sensing physical pain (this burns).
In the brain, there is a connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. The idea is to strengthen this connection so that when we react to things with our amygdala, we don’t get overwhelmed by this freeze-fight or flight mode, instead our rational thinking can take over and allow us to act properly in a situation.
The seasoned practitioners brain revealed a lowered level of reactivity in the amygdala; they were more immune to emotional hijacking.
As neuroscientists know, stronger this particular link in the brain, the less a person will be hijacked by emotional downs and ups of all sorts.
While MBSR training did reduce the reactivity of the amygdala, the long term meditator group showed both this reduced reactivity in the amygdala plus strengthening of the connection between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala.
Primed for Love (Not as cheesy as it sounds)
Loving-kindness refers to wishing that other people be happy, its near cousin “compassion” entails the wish that people be relieved of suffering.
Embodying compassion means we act.
Brain research tells us of three kinds of empathy:
- Cognitive empathy lets us understand how the other person thinks, we see their perspective.
- Emotional empathy lets us feel what the other is feeling.
- Empathic concern or caring, lies at the heart of compassion.
The signs of emotional empathy is feeling in your own body what the suffering person seems to feel. Research done on empathy revealed that when we witness the pain and suffering of someone else, we activate networks which underlie these very same feelings in ourselves.
But if what we feel upsets us, all too often our next response means we tune out, which helps us feel better but block compassionate action. E.g. homeless people – averting the gaze from suffering.
During compassion practice, the amygdala is turned up in volume, while in focused attention on something like breath, the amygdala is turned down. Meditators are learning how to change their relationship to their emotions with different practices.
When we resist the urge to get emotionally hijacked, we are able to take in that tragic image more fully.
Enhancing a ‘compassionate attitude’ goes beyond mere outlook; people actually grow more likely to help someone in need even when there’s a cost to themselves.
A larger amygdala may confirm an unusual ability to feel the pain of other, so motivating people’s altruism.
Loving kindness (another type of meditation practice) also boosts the connection between the brain’s circuits for joy and happiness and the prefrontal cortex. The greater the increase in the connection between these regions, the more altruistic a person becomes.
The idea of empathy is supposed to allow us to resonate with people’s pain, this in turn making us more alert to the presence of danger. Compassion uses a different set of brain circuits, those for feelings of warmth, love, and concern.
The Dalai Lama noted that he had met people who had everything they wanted yet were miserable. The ultimate source of peace, he said, is in the mind.
Compassion and loving-kindness increase amygdala activation to suffering while focused attention on something neutral like the breath lessens amygdala activity.
“One hour spent practicing loving kindness toward a difficult person is the equivalent to one hundred hours of the same towards a friend or loved one.”
Our brains like to save as much energy as possible, it has the ability to notice anything unusual just long enough to be sure it poses no threat, or simply to categorise it. Once it has registered it as safe or familiar it pays little to no attention to it. One downside of this is that we habituate anything familiar.
When we process a piece of information, cortical circuits inhibit the reticule activating system (RAS) to either engage processing circuits to process it, or to quiet it down so that it can pass untouched.
When anger or anxiety is triggered, the amygdala drives prefrontal circuitry; as such disturbing emotions reach their peak, an amygdala hijack paralyses executive function. But when we take active control of our attention – as when we meditate – we deploy this prefrontal circuitry, and the amygdala quiets.
Types of Attention:
- Selective attention, the capacity to focus on one element and ignore others
- Vigilance, maintaining a constant level of attention as time goes on
- Allocating attention so we notice small or rapid shifts in what we experience
- Goal focus, or cognitive control, keeping a specific goal or task in mind despite distractions
- Meta-awareness, being able to track the quality of ones own awareness – for example, noticing when your mind wanders or you’ve made a mistake
We take in more of the stream of information available then we know in conscious awareness. This lets us tune out any irrelevant sounds but still examine them for relevance somewhere in the mind. Our name being a perfect example.
Attention then has various channels – the one we consciously select and those we tune out of.
Meditation increases, cortical specificity – more activity in the appropriate part of the sensory areas of the cortex.
Conclusion: mindfulness (at least in this form) strengthens the brains ability to focus on one thing and ignore distractions. The neural circuitry for selective attention can be trained.
The brain rewards us for any such victory with a dose of pleasuring neurochemicals. For those few moments research tells us, the nervous system takes our focus off-line and relaxes.
The brain does not multitask but rather switches rapidly from one task to (my work) to others, following every switch, when our attention returns to the original task, its strength has been appreciably diminished. It can take several minutes to ramp up once again to full concentration.
Mindfulness also improves working memory – the holding in mind of information so it can transfer into long-term memory.
Such awareness of awareness itself lets us monitor our mind without being swept away by the thoughts and feelings we are noticing.
Scientists refer to brain activity reflecting our conscious minds and its mental doings as “top down.” “Bottom up” refers to what goes on in the mind largely outside awareness, in what technically is the “cognitive unconscious.” A surprising amount of what we think is from the top down is actually from the bottom up. We seem to impose a top down gloss on our awareness, where the thin slice of the cognitive unconscious that comes to our attention creates the illusion of being the entirety of mind.
Meta-awareness lets us see a larger swath of bottom up operations.
While meditation boosts many aspects of attention, these are short term gains, more lasting benefits no doubt require ongoing practice.
Don’t Get Carried Away With Your Emotions
When you don’t move a muscle, that stress can build into excruciating pain. And if you are scanning those sensations, the feeling of “pain” melts away into a melange of physical sensations.
It no longer becomes ‘your’ pain, the senses of “mine” evaporates.
No research so far has found that meditation produces clinical improvements in chronic pain by removing the biological cause of the pain – the relief comes in how people relate to their pain.
We live in a world that is constructed by our predictions of how things are going to feel/ play out rather than experiencing what is happening.
The consciousness operates as an integrator, gluing together a vast amount of elementary mental processes, most of which we are oblivious to.
While we’re doing nothing there are brain regions that are highly active, even more active than those engaged during a difficult cognitive task. While we are working at a mental challenge like tricky subtraction, these brain regions go quiet.
The brain consumes about 20% of the body metabolic energy. This remains more or less constant nonmatter what we are doing – including nothing at all.
The area where all the neurons chitter chatter occurs when doing nothing is called the default mode network.
Our mind wanders mostly to something about ourselves – my thoughts, my emotions, my relationships, which leads to what’s troubling us, our angst.
When we lighten our system that builds up the idea of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’, we lessen our attachment of ourselves to the things we are experiencing.
Weakening activation of the default circuitry that binds together the mosaic of memories, thoughts, impulses, and other semi-independent mental processes into the cohesive sense of “me” and “mine.”
All those tested were encouraged to distinguish between simply noting the identity of an experience (itching is occurring) and identifying with it (I itch) – and then to let go. This distinction seems a crucial step in loosening the self, by activating meta-awareness – a minimal self that can simply notice the itch rather than bring it into our story line, “my itch.”
Effortful practice at the early stages of meditation activates prefrontal cortex regulatory circuits. However, the later shift to effortless practice might go along with a different dynamic: the mind at this stage is truly beginning to settle and the self-narrative is much less sticky.
The same sorts of thoughts can arise in your mind, but they are lighter: not so compelling, with less emotional oomph, and so float away more easily.
The resulting decrease in stickiness means that self-focused thoughts and feelings that arise in the mind have much less “grab” and decreasing ability to hijack attention.
Mind, Body and Soul… Genome
Stress though often psychological, worsens inflammation, apparently part of an ancient biological response to warnings of danger that marshals the body resources for recovery.
Stress can cause neurogenic flare-ups of inflammatory disorders like psoriasis and eczema.
The brains threat rear, the amygdala, signals the HPA axis (thats the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal circuitry, if you must know) to release epinephrine, an important freeze-fight-or-fight brain chemical, along with the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn raises the body energy expenditure to respond to the stressor.
MBSR group did better on an unfudgeable test: participants had a significantly smaller patch of inflammation after the stress test, and their skin was more resilient, healing faster.
Constant stress and worry take a toll on our cells, ageing them.
Meditators, but not those taking relaxation, had reduction in key pro-inflammatory cytokines. fMRI scans showed the greater their increase in connectivity between the prefrontal regions and the default areas that generate our inner stream of chat, the greater the reduction in the cytokines.
Sugar turns on the genes for diabetes; exercise turns them off. Sugar and exercise are epigenetic influencers, among the many, many factors that control whether or not a gene expresses itself.
A drop-in cytokines, if sustained over a lifetime, might help combat diseases with onsets marked by chronic low-grade inflammation. As we’ve said, these include many of the worlds major health problems, ranging from cardiovascular disorders, arthritis, and diabetes to cancer.
Telomeres are the caps at the end of DNA strands that reflect how long a cell will live. The longer the telomere, the longer the life span of that cell will be. Telomerase is the enzyme that slows the age related shortening of telomeres. Mindfulness was associated with increased telomerase activity.
Areas of the brain that enlarged due to meditation:
- The insula, which attunes us to our internal state and powers emotional self-awareness, by enhancing attention to such internal signals
- Somatomotor area, the main cortical hubs for sensing touch and pain, perhaps another benefit of increased bodily awareness
- Parts of the prefrontal cortex, that operates in paying attention and in meta-awareness, abilities cultivated in almost all forms of meditation
- Regions of the cingulate cortex instrumental in self-regulation, another skill practiced in meditation
- The orbitofrontal cortex, also part of the circuitry for self-regulation
Meditation, the researchers conclude, helps preserve the brain by slowing atrophy.
Meditation as Psychotherapy
Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
Meditation (in particular, mindfulness) can have a role in treating depression anxiety, and pain – about as much as medications but with no side effects. Meditation also can, to a lesser degree, reduce the toll of psychological stress. Overall, mediation has not been proven better for psychological distress than medical treatments, though the evidence for stronger conclusions remain insufficient.
Akin to world class rankings in sport, in meditation, the better you get the less you care about your ranking.
How Your Brain is Measured
There are four main types of EEG waves, classed by their frequency (technically measured in hertz), this can be used to measure brain activity.
- Delta, the slowest wave oscillation between one and four cycles per second, and occurs mainly during sleep
- Theta is the next slowest, can signify drowsiness
- Alpha occurs when we are doing little thinking and indicates relaxation
- Beta is the fastest, accompanies thinking, alertness, or concentration
Gamma, the very fastest brain wave, occurs during moments when different brain regions fire in harmony, like moment of insight when different elements of mental puzzle ‘click,’ try this.
The instant your mind comes up with the answer, your brain signals momentarily, it produces that distinctive gamma flare. You also elicit short lived gamma wave when, for instance, you imagine biting into a ripe, juicy peach and your brain draws together memories store in different regions of the occipital, temporal, somatosensory, insular and olfactory cortices to suddenly mesh the sight, cells, taste, feel, and sound into a single experience.
Ordinarily gamma waves from say, a creative insight, last no longer than a fifth of a second – not the full minute seen in by yogis.
Astonishingly, this sustained, brain-entraining gamma pattern goes on even while expert meditators are asleep.
Experienced meditators have a great emotional resonance which affects their premotor cortex and in turn their readiness to help someone suffering. Their self-concern is dampened and their compassionate action increases.
Since the essence of meditation is awareness, any sensation that anchors attention can be used as support – and pain particularly can be very effective in focusing.
Studies were done where the anticipation of pain (anxiety) was so strong that when they actually experienced the sensation, their pain was made stronger.
For instance, intense worry about something like an upcoming painful medical procedure can in itself cause us anticipatory suffering.
With yogic training the brain becomes one finely tuned to the heart – specifically during compassion meditation.
Sticking with meditation over the years offers more benefits as meditators reach the long term range of lifetime hours, around 1000-10000 hours.
The earlier effects deepen, while others emerge.
In Yogis (expert meditators) it was seen that once their attention locked onto a target stimulus, their neural circuits for effortful attention went quiet while their attention stayed perfectly focused.
Meditation seems to transform the resting state – the brains default mode – to resemble the meditative state.
The concept of training 10000 to master a skill is flawed. Its not about how many hours you work, but how smart the hours you work, You need to apply progressive overload.
People will benefit more and are better off meditating in an environment that offers feedback and progressive overload (such as a retreat).
Different mediation practices suit different people. Although all forms of meditation share a common core of mind training – e.g. learning to let go of the myriad distractions that flow through the mind and to focus on one object of attention or stance or awareness. But as we get more familiar with the mechanics of the various paths, they divide and cluster together.
Beginner, long term, and yogi – are grouped around different kinds of meditation: mainly mindfulness for beginners, Vipassana for long term (with some studies of Zen), and for the yogis, the Tibetan paths known as Dzogchen and Mahamudra.
Meditation clusters on the basis of body of findings in cognitive science and clinical psychology:
- Attentional. These meditations focus on training aspects of your attention, whether in concentration, as in zeroing in on the breath, a mindful observation of experience, a mantra, or meta-awareness, as in open presence
- Constructive. Cultivating virtuous qualities, like loving kindness, typifies these methods
- Deconstruction. As with insight practice, these methods use self observation to piece the nature of experience. They include non dual approaches that shift into a mode where ordinary cognition no longer dominates
A view on becoming mindful is that we all have Buddha nature, but we simply fail to recognise it. Therefore the aim is to recognise intrinsic qualities, what’s already present rather than the development of any new inner skill.
- Beginners brains show less amygdala reactivity to stress. Improvements in attention after just two weeks of practice include better focus, less mind wandering, and improved working memory.
- Some of the earliest benefits are with compassion meditation, including increased connectivity in the circuitry for empathy. And markers for inflammation lessen a bit with just thirty hours of practice
- There are brain indicators of lowered reactivity to stress and lessened inflammation, a strengthening of the prefrontal circuits for managing distress, and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, signalling less reactivity to stress in general. Compassion meditation at this level brings a greater neural tuning with those who are suffering, and enhanced likelihood of doing something to help.
- When it comes to attention, there are a range of benefits stronger selective attention, greater case in sustaining attention, a heightened readiness to respond to whatever may come, and less mind wandering.
- Slower breath rate (indicating a slowing of the metabolic rate). A daylong retreat enhances the immune system, and signs of meditative states continue during sleep. As these changes suggest the emergence of altered traits.