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Meditation: A Widely Studied Phenomenon Today

By Dennis Rowe

Not that long ago, the word “meditation” conjured up images of ascetics dwelling austerely in Himalayan caves. Today, just about every town in America has a yoga studio which typically offers some form of meditation practice. Until recently, however, no one really knew if meditation could offer consistent, practical benefits, or if it was merely an Eastern version of the sugar pill. It took modern science to lift the veil on meditation.

One of the most fascinating insights into the practice of meditation comes from the study of brainwaves recorded by electroencephalographic measurement (EEG). It turns out that different types of meditation produce different brain wave patterns during practice:

  • Meditations that involve focused attention (e.g., Zen, Qigong, Diamond Way Buddhism, Vipassana) produce Gamma EEG patterns, which come about when the brain is working hard.
  • Meditations in the category of “open monitoring” (e.g., mindfulness, Za Zen, Kriya Yoga) produce Theta 2 EEG patterns, found whenever your attention is turned within and you are following mental processes.
  • A third style of EEG pattern, Alpha 1, indicative of restful alertness, is produced by meditations in the category of “automatic self-transcending” where the mind goes beyond the thinking process to experience being, as in Transcendental Meditation® (TM®) practice.

What effect do these different styles of brainwaves have on our brain functioning? Focused attention and open monitoring meditations are found to be helpful in consciously constructing mental tools to help cope with life. Automatic self-transcending changes our mental state so we see the world differently.

How does modifying our brain waves change our brain and the experience of our mind during the day? A recent Harvard study involving an eight-week mindfulness meditation program showed measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.1 A 2012 review of 163 studies, published by the American Psychological Association concluded that the TM® technique had relatively strong effects in reducing anxiety, negative emotions, trait anxiety and neuroticism, while aiding learning, memory and self-realization. Mindfulness meditation had relatively strong effects in reducing negative personality traits and stress, and in improving attention and mindfulness. 2

Are physical benefits of meditation also proven? Researchers have also discovered positive, measurable changes in physical health from meditation practice. A five-year randomized controlled study on patients with established coronary heart disease reported a 48% reduction in death, heart attack, and stroke in subjects in the TM® group, compared to controls.3 An American Heart Association scientific statement in 2013 concluded that TM® meditation practice has been shown to lower blood pressure and recommends that TM® be considered in clinical practice for the prevention and treatment of hypertension.4

These few examples of meditation research shed light on the differences between meditation practices, and suggest in general that meditation practice may be helpful in reducing stress and improving health.

Dennis Rowe is the director of the Palm Springs center for Transcendental Meditation® and can be reached at (760) 537.1006.

References: 1) Study will be published in the Jan. 30, 2015 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging; 2) Sedlmeier, Peter; Eberth, Juliane; Schwarz, Marcus; Zimmermann, Doreen; Haarig, Frederik; Jaeger, Sonia; Kunze, Sonja Psychological Bulletin, Vol 138(6), Nov 2012, 1139-1171; 3) Stress Reduction in the Secondary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: Randomized, Controlled Trial of Transcendental Meditation and Health Education in Blacks. Robert H. Schneider, Clarence E. Grim, et al. Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes. 2012; 5:750-758, published online before print November 13 2012, doi:10.1161/CIRCOUTCOMES.112.967406. 4) Brook R.D. et al., Beyond Medications and Diet: Alternative Approaches to Lowering Blood Pressure. A Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association. Hypertension, 61:00, 2013.

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