Categories of Meditation

Are all meditation techniques the same?

Study outlines EEG differences among types of meditation.

As doctors increasingly prescribe meditation to patients for stress-related disorders, scientists are gaining a better understanding of how different techniques from Buddhist, Chinese, and Vedic traditions produce different results.

“Every experience changes the brain,” observes Dr. Fred Travis, director of the Center for Brain, Consciousness, and Cognition at Maharishi International University and a widely published brain researcher. “If you read a poem, for example, your brain will function differently than if you listen to it being read. Likewise, every meditation technique produces some change in brain functioning. Because different techniques involve different procedures, they change brain functioning in different ways.”

Dr. Travis and Jonathan Shear, PhD, professor of philosophy at Virginia Commonwealth University, published a research study in the journal Consciousness and Cognition surveying the different types of brain (EEG) activity produced by different types of meditation. The paper describes three categories of meditation and the type of brainwave activity that results:

  • Focused attention (concentrating on an object or emotion) — This category includes meditations from the Tibetan Buddhist (loving kindness and compassion), Buddhist (Zen and Diamond Way), and Chinese (Qigong) traditions. These procedures give rise to beta/gamma activity in the brain — seen during any active cognitive processing or control of the mind.
  • Open monitoring (being mindful of one’s breath or thoughts) — This category includes meditations from the Buddhist (Mindfulness, and ZaZen), Chinese (Qigong), and Vedic (Sahaja Yoga) traditions. During practice of these procedures, the brain displays theta activity — seen when reflecting on mental concepts.
  • Automatic self-transcending (meditations that transcend their own activity). This category includes the Transcendental Meditation® technique. It produces frontal alpha 1 coherence, which characterizes the state of inner wakefulness. Higher coherence indicates the brain’s prefrontal cortex, its “CEO” or “executive control center” is functioning in an integrated manner.

“The EEG characteristics of self-transcending are the result of the effortless nature of the Transcendental Meditation technique,” Dr. Travis explains. “Brainwave patterns in the Transcendental Meditation® technique reach high levels of coherence and integration after just a few months. In contrast, we found a case study in which a practitioner of Qigong achieved a similar result, but after 45 years of practice — probably the result of ‘automaticity through extensive rehearsal,’ just any activity becomes more automatic through repeated practice.”


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