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How Different Types Of Meditation Affect the Brain

Most people tend to believe that all types of meditations are the same. It is common to hear about the benefits of “meditation,” but most people don’t know that there are different benefits to be obtained based specifically on the type of meditation practice pursued. One person may practice Vipassana meditation a.k.a. “mindfulness” and reap numerous benefits, while another may practice Transcendental meditation (TM) and get an entirely different beneficial effect.

In recent years meditation practices have come to be associated with things like reduced anxiety, increased cognitive function, lower rates of depression, and a greater degree of self-control. That said, you may not be aware of the fact that the type of meditation you chose to practice elicits different effects on your brain than another.  This holds true for brain volume increases, areas of activation, as well as brain waves.

Different Types of Meditation

Three fairly popular types of meditations include: Vipassana or mindfulness meditation, transcendental meditation (TM), and Tibetan Buddhism’s “loving-kindness” meditation. These three types tend to elicit significantly different EEG patterns (brain waves) and regional activations. Should you decide to meditate, you can pick a practice to decide the type of brain changes you’d like to experience. This relates back to the concept I recently discussed called “self-directed neuroplasticity.”

1. Mindfulness Meditation (Vipassana)

  • Procedure: Observation

This type of meditation is commonly practiced sitting with your eyes closed in a comfortable position with the back straight. All attention is focused on the “breath” or abdominal area during which you are inhaling and exhaling. A person focuses on the breath as they inhale and exhale through the nostrils.

Each time a distracting thought comes up that deters your focus from breathing, you simply notice that you became distracted, but don’t react to it – instead remain non-judgmental. Be mindful of any thoughts, but simply refocus your attention on your “breath.” Each time you get distracted, shift your focus back to the breathing.

2. Transcendental Meditation (TM)

  • Procedure: Effortless Transcending

This type of meditation involves repeating a particular sound or “mantra.” It is perhaps the most popular type of meditation and among the most widely researched techniques. The technique is generally taught by an instructor, but involves sitting in a comfortable position, turning attention inwards, and after you’re comfortable, you repeat a mantra. When first starting out, you can repeat the mantra aloud, but eventually you can do this silently.

You repeat the mantra at a comfortable pace, effortlessly – without forcing it. You simply continuously repeat it, which makes the mind continuously focused on the mantra. This mantra is generally given by an instructor, but you can find your own if interested. The goal is to continue repeating the mantra effortlessly, without a need to become over-focused on it.

As your mind continues to be engorged in the mantra, you enter a deeper state of emptiness. Like all types of meditation, you’ll encounter thoughts that distract you. Simply acknowledge them, and return back to the mantra. Some have compared transcendental meditation as being like a bath for the brain. Most people repeat this practice for 10 to 20 minutes, twice per day.

3. Loving-Kindness Meditation (Tibetan Buddhism)

  • Procedure: Concentration

This type of meditation is commonly described as the logical deconstruction of the reality of objects experienced in meditation and additionally, concentration to develop emotions such as compassion, loving-kindness, or selflessness. Advanced Tibetan Buddhist meditators are able to focus their attention and ultimately control their mind, which involves intense concentration.

Those that follow the Tibetan Buddhism path of meditation will typically develop the ability to cultivate an array of different states of consciousness. A specific practice called “Metta” or loving-kindness meditation is one of many different practices utilized within Tibetan Buddhism. To perform this, a meditator sits in a relaxed position and takes a few deep breaths and directs focus to their heart region.

They then focus on feeling love and compassion towards themselves. Once loving-kindness to the self-has been established, the meditator will then direct this emotion of loving-kindness towards another person and/or those in their environment. The end result is feelings of happiness and a heart-centered positive emotion towards yourself and others.

Brain Volume & Activation

The blood flow within the brain as well as metabolic rate can be obtained with brain scans (e.g. MRI or PET). These help us determine which areas have changed as a result of a meditation practice as well as which areas experience greater activation.

Mindfulness meditation

The volume of gray matter and number of connections in the brain were different among those who practiced Vipassana meditation compared to control groups and other types of meditations.

  • Thicker right insula: The right insula is involved in cognitive-emotional processes such as empathy and self-awareness.
  • Right temporal area: The right temporal area is involved in processing the sense of hearing. It appears as though activation increased following this type of mediation.
  • Right parietal area: This is a region involved in processing touch that appears to experience greater activation when a person has engaged in Vipassana mediation.
  • Thicker right frontal cortex: The right frontal cortex is a brain area involved in focusing and directing attention. Activity increased among those who practiced Vipassana mediation.

Transcendental meditation (TM)

Among individuals who practice transcendental meditation, there are different patterns of brain activation that can be observed. The TM practice involves cultivating a state of restful alertness. This results in an increase of wakefulness, and calmness within the mind and body.

  • Frontal activity (increase): There is a marked increase in activity within the frontal lobes of the brain. The frontal areas are involved in focusing attention and advanced cognitive function.
  • Parietal activity (increase): There is also an increase in activation within the parietal regions of the brain. Activity in this area helps us recognize objects in the environment.
  • Thalamus activity (decrease): The thalamus is known as a major sensory area of the brain, and tends to experience decreased activation with long-term practice of TM.
  • Basal ganglia activity (decrease): The basal ganglia is involved in controlling voluntary motor movements, procedural learning, and emotion. This area experiences decreased activity with practice of TM.

Brain activity during meditation vs. waking states among those practicing TM

  • During meditation: When a person’s eyes are closed during transcendental meditation, the brain waves of a novice meditator are the same as someone who is extremely advanced. There is literally no difference between brain waves of an advanced guru and someone who just started practicing this technique.
  • Non-meditation: The biggest difference in brain waves appears to be during waking hours, when a person isn’t meditating. The individual who has practiced transcendental meditation for years experiences a greater degree of “transcending” brain waves during waking hours, whereas the individual who has only been practicing it for a short time doesn’t.

Loving-Kindness (Tibetan)

There are noticeable increases in activity within the frontal lobes as well as the thalamus among those practicing various forms of unconditional loving-kindness meditation.

  • Frontal activity (increase): When focusing attention on a task, the frontal areas of the brain become increasingly active. As a result of this particular type of meditation, frontal activity tends to increase. Specifically there was significantly greater activation in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, an area associated with positive emotions and self-control.
  • Thalamus activity (increase): Activity in the thalamus tends to increase as well in contrast to the practice of TM in which that particular region experiences a decrease in activation.
  • Parietal activity (decrease): This is an area of the brain that helps us to recognize objects in the environment, visual attention, and spatial orientation. Activity seems to decrease in this area with practice of loving-kindness meditation.

Brain Activation & Brain Waves (EEG Patterns)

Brain wave activity appears to be different based on the specific type of meditation practice you implement as do the areas of increased activation. If you practice Vipassana meditation for a long time, your brain activity will be significantly different than someone who practiced transcendental meditation for an equal period of time.

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation tends to result in increased activation within the left frontal lobe as well as within the motor system.

  • Left frontal activity: Increased activity within the left-prefrontal cortex is associated with positive affect and happiness. People who suffer from depression tend to have underactivated left-prefrontal regions.
  • Motor system: The sites “C3/C4” on a QEEG tend to become increasingly active during this type of meditation. These are areas within the motor system associated with moving your right hand.

Transcendental meditation

There appear to be no major differences in brain waves among novice transcendental meditators and advanced ones. This is because those who practice TM utilize the natural tendency of the mind – it wanders, and the technique doesn’t require any effort. Transcending is a natural process, so you don’t really get “better” at it the more you do it.

  • Alpha waves: By practicing transcendental meditation (TM), you will ultimately be increasing the coherence of alpha brain waves. Coherence simply means that the brain waves are being transmitted across both hemispheres of the brain, thus improving neural communication across a greater distance.
  • Frontal lobes: The increase in alpha waves as a result of TM does not occur with other meditative practices.
  • Posterior attention networks: The synchronization tends to occur within posterior attention networks, possibly increasing the efficiency of processing within this region.

The brain appears to be more active with greater levels of coherence while a person is engaged in TM. The coherence differentiates TM from other types of meditation, and it’s possible that the increase in alpha synchrony may result in improvements in creativity, spatial tasks, and memory function. Alpha synchronization may also serve as a “carrier” frequency for 20 Hz beta waves (cognition) and 40 Hz gamma waves (perception).

Loving-Kindness Meditation

Those who practice loving-kindness meditation tend to display higher-than-average amplitude of 40 Hz gamma waves. These are associated with advanced perceptual functions, binding of information, as well as intelligence. Those who have mental deficits tend to elicit significantly less 40 Hz activity throughout their brain.

  • Gamma waves: Brain waves displayed by those engaged in “unconditional” loving-kindness or compassion types of meditation tend to display significantly more gamma activity. It tends to be synchronized within the frontal and parietal regions of the brain.

The increase in gamma waves may result in superior ability to focus, may create a more accurate perception of reality, and may lead to emotions of bliss. Those with better memory functions tend to have greater 40 Hz activity than those with average or poorer memories.

Bottom line: Different meditations elicit unique benefits…

It is important to drive home the point that not all meditation practices are the same in terms of procedure as well as benefits. It is clear that meditation practices can be distinguished based on blood flow, regional increases in grey matter volume, as well as EEG (brain wave) patterns. The reported benefits also tend to be different based on the type of meditation a person practices as well as the times span over which they’ve been practicing it.

Which type of meditation should you practice?

You could carry out an array of brain scans and QEEGs to find your current brain activation patterns and determine which type of meditation would provide the most benefit. Someone who has deficient activity in a certain area of the brain such as the thalamus would not want to engage in TM practice based on the fact that TM tends to further decrease activity in this area. Instead the individual may want to take up a Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice to “wake up” this region.

Contrarily if the brain was already overactive in a particular region such as the thalamus, you may want to consider practicing TM as a means of decreasing activity. It is important to understand that nearly all types of meditative practices have unique benefits based on how they shape your brain function over time. If you want to meditate, pick the type of meditation you enjoy and are most likely to stick with.

If you don’t know which type of meditation you’ll like, simply test out each of the different types and pick the one you most enjoy. Keep in mind that benefits to be obtained from any type of meditation do not come overnight – they tend to occur most often with long-term practice. Like different styles of weight lifting tend to produce specific physical adaptations over time, different types of meditation tend to produce specific brain adaptations over time.

Realize that certain types of mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression are thought to benefit most from Vipassana or “mindfulness” practices. If you don’t like the idea that your brain is changing to fit a specific mold associated with a particular meditation practice, you may want to try something different like a specialized neurofeedback protocol. If you’ve utilized a particular meditation practice for an extended period of time, feel free to note any changes you experienced in the comments section below.

  • Source: http://www.fredtravis.com/talk.html

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{ 5 comments… add one }
  • A Nonny Mouse April 15, 2015, 5:52 am

    Great to read this and find I’m not alone! I have OCD and sensory processing issues as well as depression, and I’ve found that meditation often makes those issues worse. The “in the moment” meditations are usually the culprits, as “the moment” is usually full of the kinds of stressors and anxiety triggers – paying direct attention to them usually only makes them feel stronger and more triggering. Visualizations work much, much better for me.

    • Mike D October 6, 2016, 10:56 pm

      They get stronger as you get closer to the root trauma. This is the way to work through your issues rather than distract, control, suppress through visualizing. The way out is through. Try reading The Presence Process.

  • Judith Rosen April 5, 2016, 3:59 pm

    In my experience, Vipassana is “insight” meditation. Ana pana is an example of a “mindfulness” technique. They work together. In Zen meditation, one only does mindfulness. Zazen is similar to Ana pana.

  • Rakesh Nayak May 31, 2016, 3:08 am

    Great article. In my observation too, effectiveness of vipassana, increases with practise. Whereas TM is suggested only for 20min a day. Related article : http://article.sapub.org/10.5923.j.ijbcs.20140301.02.html#Sec4

  • ben June 24, 2016, 6:43 pm

    Decreasing thalamus activity is a good thing because less sensitivity and ADHD symptoms. No meditation works as good as TM, just a personal opinion.

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