"Are All Meditations the Same? Comparing the Neural Patterns of Mindfulness Meditation, Tibetan Buddhism practice "unconditional loving-kindness and compassion," and the Transcendental Meditation Technique."

Dr. Fred Travis gave this talk at the Science of Consciousness conference in Tucson, AZ, April 2006

Click any slide for a larger image.

Are All Meditations the Same? Dr. Fred Travis

The idea for this talk came when I was reviewing a grant to fund the application of Mindfulness Meditation to deal with pain in terminally ill cancer patients. In the rationale section, the author had 60 citations to support the use of mindfulness meditation in this grant. However, 60% of these references were for studies that used the Transcendental Meditation technique as the meditation intervention.

Was the author being scientifically dishonest?

I don't think so.

Many individuals think that all meditations are the same. Thus, many people feel that scientific research using one meditation tradition can generalize to effects from any meditation practice.

Are all meditations the same?

Short Answer Is "No".

The short answer is: No. As we will see, meditations differ in procedure, neural imaging patterns, EEG patterns and benefits.

For a full answer....

Full Answer: The Experience of Meditation by Jonathan Shear I direct you to a book that Jonathon Shear has written discussing in detail the procedures, contents, objects, beliefs, and goals of 10 meditation practices. He asked the abbots of monasteries and the leader of ashrams to write their own story.
Brain patterns during Buddhist, Insight, and Transcendental Meditation

Today I';ll be covering brain patterns reported during three of these meditation traditions: Tibetan Buddhism practice of "unconditional loving-kindness and compassion", Mindfulness and TM. I have picked these because research has explored neural imaging and EEG patterns for these practices.

Brain patterns are a language that cuts across differences in cultures, worldviews, and emotionally vested terms that can cloud consideration of different meditation practices.

Let us begin.

First these three meditations clearly differ in procedure.

Meditation Procedures Differ

Meditation in the Tibetan Buddhism tradition has been generally described as: "Reasoned deconstruction of the reality of objects experienced in meditation, as well as concentrative practices to create moods such as pure compassion, loving kindness; or no self. This involves focused attention, and control of the mind. It involves concentration.

Mindfulness Meditation is described by Paul Grossman as: Systematic procedure to develop enhanced awareness of moment-to-moment experiences. Mindfulness includes two meditation practices:
- with eyes closed: attention on breath.
- with eyes open: dispassionate observation of body, senses and environment. This meditation involves intention or directing of attention to physiological rhythms, inner thoughts, sensations or outer objects.

Transcendental Meditation technique is a process of effortless transcending.

When I say this, there is always some shifting in seats.
I reviewed an article for Psychological Bulletin that placed Transcendental Meditation technique in the category of a concentration technique, because it uses a mantra. TM practice does include a mantra. However, the mantra is used in a process of effortless transcending.

Let's look at this concept of effortless.

If TM is effortless, it should be mastered quickly...

As a working hypothesis, let's accept that TM is effortless, and then generate testable hypotheses. One of these testable hypotheses, is: If TM is effortless, then people should quickly master the practice of transcending.

Research supports this hypothesis. In the next slide, we see EEG during TM in students of the same age, but with very different levels of time practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique. The one on the left just learned the TM technique, as a new student at Maharishi University of Management. The one on the right has been meditating since he was 10 years old.

Similar EEG During TM Practice

You see EEG tracings from 16 sensors. The top of the chart graphs frontal leads; the middle graphs the middle leads, the bottom of the chart graphs the back sensors.

Do you see the difference here? There is none visually, and there is none after conducting statistical analyses.
People quickly master TM. There is no novice/expert hierarchy in TM.

How is this possible? TM uses the natural tendency of the mind.

What is the natural tendency of the mind? Its your experience right now. You have clicked on this file and have been eagerly reading it, but your attention has wandered—to a song, or to a person entering the room. The natural tendency of the mind is to go to a field of greater charm. This takes the attention from object to another during the day. It is also used to take the attention within during practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique.

Because transcending natural, you don’t get better at TM practice, you don’t get better at bringing your attention to finer levels of the mind—to less focused mental activity along with progressively more expanded sense of self.

Effects of regular TM practice are seen in activity, after the meditation practice.

Different EEG during Eyes Open Rest

Differences in EEG patterns are seen outside of meditation.

Do you see what has happened? If you look at the slide above, you will see that the EEG patterns during Transcendental Meditation practice are seen in this slide when the person’s eyes are open.

The state of consciousness, and the brain patterns of Transcendental Meditation practice have become integrated with daily life. This if the value of regular practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique—you bring transcendental infinity into life.

The answer to our first question is: Yes, meditations have very different procedures.

Next, we’ll look at the neural imaging of brain activity during different techniques.

Neural Images Differ

Brain blood flow and brain metabolic rate can be imaged with modern neural imaging techniques using high magnetic fields and radio waves during MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), or intravenously injected radioactive substances that are picked up by those brain areas most active during PET (Positron Emission Tomography).

Independent labs report distinctly different patterns of brain activity during different meditations.

Neural Imaging: Tibetan Buddhism

Here are brain changes during Tibetan Buddhism practice of "unconditional loving-kindness and compassion."

There was an increase in activity in the front part of the brain, the area activated when anyone focuses attention on a particular task, and in the thalamus, the gateway of activation to the brain.

There was also a decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, recognized as the area responsible for visual attention, spatial orientation, and cross-modal matching.

In contrast, Richie Davidson reported left frontal activation in expert Tibetan Buddhist compared to novice meditators practice "unconditional loving-kindness and compassion." Left prefrontal areas are linked to positive emotions, self-control and temperament.

Davidson has been looking at the relation of left frontal activation and emotions for 15 years. It is reasonable that he would have focused on this ROI.

I found no published neural images during Mindfulness Meditation. However, Lazar has reported neural images during eyes-closed rest in expert Mindfulness meditators compared to non-meditating controls.

Neural Imaging: Insight Meditation

Higher gray matter volume and more connections were reported in areas used in focusing of attention (right frontal areas) and brain areas involved with sensory perception: the right insula (taste and emotionally relevant context), right parietal (touch) and right temporal (hearing).

Thicker cortex suggests these local areas are used during Mindfulness.

Neural Imaging - TM

Neural imaging patterns are distinctly different during Transcendental Meditation practice

Note during TM practice the frontal and parietal attentional systems are both more active and the thalamus is less active.

This is the brain activation pattern of restful alertness--pure wakefulness: heightened alertness in the midst of deep silence for mind and body.

EEG Patterns Differ As neural images differ, so also, EEG patterns are distinctly different during these three meditation practices.
Tibetan Buddhism EEG Patterns

This figure is from Lutz's 2004 article in the National Academy of Science.

During "unconditional loving-kindness and compassion," there was high amplitude 40 Hz reported over most scalp electrodes. Also, high 40 Hz fronto-parietal phase synchrony

40 Hz means high focus of attention, for instance, when you are playing tennis and waiting for the serve on a triple match point;.

Studies report that memory tasks requiring complex recall had higher 40 Hz EEG than in simple recall. 40 Hz means the person is attending to details of experience.

Mindfulness Patterns - C3/C4 EEG

This next figure is from Davidson 2003 article in Psychosomatic Medicine. Davidson says in the abstract “left-sided anterior activation, a pattern previously associated with positive affect.
Left frontal activity is associated with emotional happiness.

However, the paper actually reports activation in the motor system. (C3/C4) Specifically the part of the brain that moves the right hand.

Replication of these findings are needed to see if frontal areas associated with positive affect are activated, or if motor system is activated as reported here.

EEG Patterns: TM Technique

Last, here are sample EEG patterns during practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique.

We are seeing electrical activity from 32 points on the scalp. The top of the chart is the front left of the brain; the bottom of the chart is the front right of the brain.
Notice how the signals between pairs of sensors are rising up and down together. This is called coherence. Coherence means that two parts of the brain are talking to each other—are functionally linked.

Global coherence is seen during Transcendental Meditation practice—high bilateral frontal coherence and high coherence in frontal /posterior attention networks.

This suggests that the brain as a whole is more wakeful, is more lively. Global coherence during TM practice differs from localized brain areas used during other meditation practices.

Some researchers model alpha EEG as a carrier wave for higher processing and higher EEG frequencies. For instance, an 10 Hz alpha wave would time lock with 20Hz beta waves associated with processing, and the 40 Hz gamma wave associated with perception.

The more coherent the alpha carrier wave, the more efficient the person would respond—better performance on spatial tasks, memory tasks, creativity scores and paired reaction time tasks.

Frontal alpha coherence is not reported in other meditation practices.

So we see three different brain patterns reported during three meditation practices.

If meditation researchers could use the same measures...

In looking at these data, I had a thought. If meditation researchers could agree on a set of physiological measures and record these in their subject population, then each meditation could be distinguished on this objective physiological profile.

I was analyzing one-year longitudinal data. I added lateral asymmetry and 40 Hz analyses to this study of EEG changes during eyes closed, TM practice, and computer tasks.

Longitudinal Changes: 40 Hz There were no significant changes in 40Hz power during the 1 year of TM practice.
Longitudinal Changes: Log R-Log L There were also no significant changes in frontal lateral asymmetry the 1 year of TM practice.
Longitudinal Changes: Coherence

There were significant changes in frontal coherence over the 1 year of TM practice.

Frontal coherence rose to a high level during practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique after 2 months, and then reached that same high level after 6 and 12 months. This supports the earlier discussion of effortless of the practice.

Also, as was discussed earlier, effects of regular Transcendental Meditation practice are seen in activity. In these data, EEG coherence increased during the computer task with each successive posttest.

An invitation to all meditation researchers...

In conclusion, meditations do differ in procedure, in patterns of brain blood flow, brain metabolic rate, and in EEG patterns. They also differ in reported benefits.

The academic community has no basis to generalize effects and benefits of one meditation to all meditations.

I end with an invitation to all meditation researchers. Let us agree on a set of physiological measures and record these in their subject population. This would give us an objective physiological profile to discuss meditation traditions.

Sincerely, Dr. Fred Travis
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