TREND: Meditation Goes Plural
Impact and Clarity Take Precedence
Just a few years ago, meditation was a fringe activity for insider wellness types, but it’s now clocking the meteoric growth yoga did 20 years ago. However, for something that delivers clarity, there is serious confusion around how the terms “meditation,” “mindfulness” and “mindful” are used, which infects many of the medical studies.
Bob Roth, CEO of the nonprofit David Lynch Foundation and one of the world’s top experts on meditation, argues that to ground our understanding of meditation and its effects, we should first embrace a three-type meditation classification paradigm: 1) focused attention 2) open monitoring and 3) self-transcending. While there are hundreds, if not thousands, of meditation practices and brands, the three categories analyzed below represent the generally agreed-upon and best-studied mechanisms that are operating across the increasingly crowded meditation landscape. And more head-to-head studies on these core types are starting to clarify how they impact the brain and the benefits they have.
1 – Focused Attention Meditation
This type of meditation involves training to clear the mind of thoughts through concerted concentration exercises, such as focusing on objects, the breath or bodily sensations. And the mind is brought back to that object of focus when it wanders. As Roth notes, in this form of meditation, thoughts themselves are often seen as the disrupter, even the obstacle to mental calm, focus and higher awareness. Vipassana meditation, believed to come from Buddha himself, as well as other meditations from the Tibetan Buddhist and Chinese traditions, are part of the focused attention category.
Brain impact: Because the meditator is intensely controlling his or her own attention, research shows that the practice creates very fast Gamma brain waves at 20–50 cycles/second (also with some Beta activity), which are involved in higher processing tasks and cognitive functioning, such as learning, memory, and the binding of our senses in regard to perception. Research also shows that focused attention meditation leads to a higher volume of gray matter in prefrontal brain regions, which are all about attention, higher-level awareness and monitoring. Other research has suggested that this form of meditation reduces depression and anxiety and improves sleep.
Roth summarized, “It can be a particularly powerful tool to train the mind to focus more intently and to be less scattered in your thinking.”
2 – Open Monitoring Meditation (Includes Mindfulness Meditation)
The most practiced breed in the West (as it includes mindfulness meditation), open monitoring meditation, as Roth puts it, does not see thoughts as the disruptor of our calm but rather it is often the content of our thoughts. It involves training in how to pay attention in the present moment and, as (negative, stressful) emotions and thoughts and physical sensations come up, learning to observe them in a dispassionate, nonjudgmental way. You often begin open monitoring meditation with a body scan or by focusing on your breath and then expand to opening up awareness to thoughts, sounds and feelings that arise.
It spans many familiar kinds of meditation, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), created by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979, an eight-week course offered in clinics and hospitals around the world that uses both the body scan and breath awareness. (Kabat-Zinn was a powerful force in bringing mindfulness meditation to the West.) Or Loving Kindness Meditation, which often uses repetition of phrases to extend kindness and love out from the self to loved ones and the rest of the world. It includes chanting meditations or sound meditations/baths that use vibrations and sound to drive present-time awareness. And it includes the vast majority of guided meditations served up on the exploding number of meditation apps, such as “meditation for work” or “meditation for grief.”
Brain impact: Research indicates that open monitoring (and mindfulness) meditation primarily generates slow Theta brain waves at 4–8 cycles/second (and secondarily Alpha 2 waves at 10–12 cycles/second). Theta waves are dominant in daydreaming and sleep and are associated with a relaxed, emotionally open and connected state of mind. There are many studies on open monitoring/mindfulness meditation. A Carnegie Mellon University study showed that an eight-week mindfulness meditation course shrunk the amygdala (the brain’s “fight or flight” center, involved with fear and stress). And as the amygdala shrinks, the prefrontal cortex (that region of high-level brain processes, such as awareness, focus and decision-making) becomes thicker—so our primal responses to stress get overtaken by more thoughtful, calm ones. As Zev Schuman-Olivier, director of the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Cambridge Health Alliance (associated with Harvard Medical School) summarized, “What we see with mindfulness meditation is this improvement in attention and cognitive control…and in emotional regulation again and again.”
3 – Self-Transcending Meditation
This type of meditation is strikingly different than focused attention or open monitoring/mindfulness in that it’s not concerned with regulating thoughts or feelings and involves no mental effort—so it’s very easy to learn and do. If focused attention and open monitoring meditation involve using cognitive processes to change cognitive processes (thoughts to change thoughts), self-transcending meditation does not. Using the analogy of the ocean, which can be turbulent at the surface but quiet at its depth, Roth says the mind is the same: naturally active on the surface and quiet at its depth. TM utilizes a mantra (a sound that has no meaning) to effortlessly “dive within” to access the field of silence that lies deep within the mind. Unlike other forms of meditation that are often taught in large groups—or through an app, book or tape—TM is taught in personal instruction from a certified instructor who has completed a six-month training program. Other modern examples of self-transcending meditation include the practices served up at ZivaMeditation.com or Deepak Chopra’s Primordial Sound Meditation, which forges your mantra from a particular vibrational sound prevalent at the place/time of your birth.
Brain impact: Research shows that self-transcending meditation increases Alpha 1 brain waves at 8–10 cycles/second, which are associated with quiet, flowing thoughts, such as daydreaming, and with states of relaxed alertness (it’s the resting state for the brain). TM has been widely studied, with more than 400 peer-reviewed studies conducted since 1970. And the research shows everything from how it calms the amygdala reactivity center and strengthens connections within the prefrontal cortex, which is also called the executive center or CEO of the brain. Numerous studies have also documented its benefits to heart health, including a 2013 report from the American Heart Association that found TM to be as effective as medication in reducing blood pressure for patients with high blood pressure. A US Department of Defense-funded study found TM to be more effective in reducing PTSD symptoms in veterans than prolonged exposure therapy.
Roth summarized, “The current science and understanding of meditation is at a very early stage. Imagine if we categorically stated, ‘medicine affects health,’ or ‘diets affect weight loss.’ It’s not helpful information. The future is more medical studies evaluating the types head-to-head and more people grasping that specific meditation practices have specific benefits for specific people—whether you seek a creative breakthrough or have a badly scattered mind. One type is not better than the other; they work differently.”
Forecasting The Future
- Meditation is at an adoption and conceptual tipping-point: If we’ve confused mindfulness with all meditation, the future is understanding specific types and their brain impacts. This will take meditation from hyped fad to an evidence-based medical intervention.
- As governments and medical systems increasingly become bankrupted by stress-related disorders, they will invest more research dollars into meditation.
- Within 5–10 years, it is likely that doctors will prescribe distinct types of meditation for distinct mental and physical issues.