Broadly speaking, meditation practices entail the monitoring and regulation of attention and emotion. Attention can be either guided to external sensory stimulation or focused internally to the functions of the mind and felt experiences of the body. In addition the focus of attention may also be wide, such as Mindfulness, or narrow, such as Shamatha concentration. A common concept throughout all types of meditation is that through regular practice, ones ability to keep track of and control mental/physical processes can be progressively learned.
Although meditative methods now garner significant interest from the cognitiveneuroscience area, meditation still often tends to be seen as a rather uniform exercise. The umbrella_term ' meditation' actually includes a wide range of distinctive techniques, perhaps thousands, with different objectives and methods. The differing approaches comprise approximately nine categories currently being studied by neuroscience:
Focused Attention (Shamatha, Jana, Pratyahara)
Open Monitoring (Vipashyana, Mindfulness)
Compassion (Tonglen, Metta)
Mantra (Transcendental Meditation, Japa)
Subtle Energy (Nei Gung, Kundalini)
Milam (Dream Yoga)
Guided (Awakened Mind, Yoga Nidra)
Modern neuroscience has only recently begun to explore these forms of meditation in any depth. The first four on the list are the more common types studied with brain wave monitoring and fMRI. Each activates and deactivates specific brain areas. One might think of them as body building exercise. They create specific connections within the brain and can actually increase the volume of the brain areas activated fairly quickly.
However the ultimate objective of meditation is not just the strengthening of neural pathways, relaxation, or stress management, it is the establishment of non-dual awareness. The first seven categories comprise what are called the “progressive” paths to non-duality. The Shamanic use of entheogens has only recently been opened to research so little is currently known of its effects. This results in two broad classifications of meditation, progressive, and sudden enlightenment schools. The non-dual falls in the sudden enlightenment school.
“The non-dual view suggests that the goal of meditation, usually thought of as an idealized state reachable only in a very distant future, is already present and complete within oneself as one’s authentic being. Meditation practice, in this view, is not about gradually perfecting oneself through improving one’s capacities, but about recognizing or realizing a very subtle background non-dual awareness that contextualizes all of one’s experiences within this wholeness.” Zoran Josipovic
Meditation has always been about the personal realization of consciousness-as-such. C. Maxwell Cade was among he first to identify the brain wave correlates of consciousness.
“C Maxwell Cade (“Max”) was a highly qualified British scientist who as a child began training in Eastern techniques such as meditation. After a career in radiation physics for the government, then in industry, he undertook pioneering research, with Dr Ann Woolley-Hart, a medical specialist, into consciousness and the meaning of brainwave patterns, bringing together the insights of Zen Buddhism and the methods of western science.Working in partnership with Geoffrey Blundell, an electronics engineer, Max went on to develop biofeedback machines, such as the Mind Mirror“Life and Times of Maxwell Cade
He identified several brain wave patterns that were correlated with people who appeared to be self-actualized in the the lives, or had achieved a more permanent state of self-transcendence. Overall approximately 4000 individuals. It was the unique ratio of brain waves( beta, alpha, theta, delta) that defined the states in combination with the activation of the autonomic nervous system as measured by the galvanic skin response. Because of limitations in technology of the times he was unable to measure gamma.
His student and protege, Anna Wise, continued on with this work, eventually creating a protocol that allowed for the development of these brain wave states, which she referred to as the Awakened Mind, and the Evolved Mind. She monitored another 10,000 individuals from all walks of life. Today with the advances in software, and using the original Cade/Blundell EEG filters, we can measure gamma as part of the overall brain wave pattern on the Mind Mirror 6, along with skin conductance, and heart rate variability.
The upshot of this is that while Cade identified the Brainwave Correlates of Consciousness, and Wise was able to develop a training protocol, they were unable to measure one of the possible correlate of awareness – gamma. We need to understand that it is not just a specific brain wave that is important, but the overall ratio of all brain waves, their inter-hemispheric symmetry, and their hemispheric synchrony, that are the defining characteristics of states of consciousness. When it comes to meditation it is one's intention that activates brain regions or connectomes, and one's focus of attention that develops the various brain rhythms.
What is not widely understood is that each of the brain rhythms act as attentional filters when meditating. For instance when focusing attention on a particular stimulus a burst of beta needs to occur at within 200 milliseconds of the stimulus or it may go completely unnoticed. Strong alpha filters out extraneous stimuli irrelevant to the focus of attention, while low amplitude alpha then allows for a wider focus. Theta creates an attentional fluctuation at 6-8 times per second shifting ones attention from the external world to the internal. Delta literally turns various brain regions on and off as it emerges and spreads throughout the brain. When it is in the up side of the wave we notice the stimulus. If stimulus occurs in the trough of the wave we miss the stimulus all together. There needs to be a close coordination between the various brain rhythms for true focused attention.
Again brain rhythms don't occur in isolation. They couple or ride on each other. Beta couples with alpha, theta, and delta in various ratios modifying their actions. For instance poor beta/theta ratio may indicate lack of impulse control, cognitive deficiencies, or possible depression. Gamma which is strongly correlated with consciousness spreads throughout the brain areas by coupling with the slower rhythms as well, theta and delta. It should come as no surprise then that as we focus our attention on the meditational task at hand we will begin to develop the necessary ratios of brain rhythms, and how successful we are at meditation will be related to how well we do this.
The other aspect of meditation is where we intend to focus our intention. This in turn activates and deactivate specific brain regions. In general there are two networks that are relevant, the task-negative, and the task-positive. As the name task-negative suggest it comes into play when we're not paying attention to anything in particular, sometimes referred too as the default mode networks. The task-positive then activates when we focus our attention on a task. As might be expected these two networks tend to be anti-correlated, that is as one activates the other deactivates. This is not an absolute as there is some overlap between these two general networks.
In future blogs we will explore how brain areas are activated by different styles of meditation and the key differences between progressive and non-dual approaches.
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