The history of meditation stems from India and Southeast Asia before finding its way into Western culture around the late mid 20th century. Meditation is believed to help reduce anxiety and stress, as well as boost emotional well-being. There are many different methods of meditation that come from varying cultures and philosophies such as; mindfulness, mantra and guided meditation. A new study, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, investigates how the brain functions during the varying types of meditation.
Svend Davanger, a neuroscientist at the University of Oslo in Norway, concluded that all meditation techniques can be put into two groups labelled: concentrative meditation and nondirective meditation. Concentrative meditation has been defined as a technique that focuses on breathing or on certain thoughts; and in doing so it suppresses other thoughts. Nondirective meditation focuses on breathing or on a meditation sound, yet during this practice the mind has the freedom to wander.
The team found that when participants practiced nondirective meditation, which is more common in modern day meditation versions, they had higher brain activity in areas associated with processing self-related thoughts and feelings than when they were resting. When subjects practiced concentrative meditation, however, their brain activity was nearly the same as when they were resting.
Davanger concluded the results: “These findings suggest that nondirective meditation allows for more room to process memories and emotions, than during concentrated mediation. This area of the brain has its highest activity when we rest. It represents a kind of basic operating system, a resting network that takes over when external tasks do not require our attention. It is remarkable that a mental task like nondirective meditation results in even higher activity in this network than regular rest.”
Jian Xu, fellow physician at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology added: “I was surprised that the activity of the brain was greatest when the person’s thoughts wandered freely on their own, rather than when the brain worked to be more strongly focused. When the subjects stopped doing a specific task there was an increase in activity in the area of the brain where we process thoughts and feelings. It is described as a kind of resting network. And it was this area that was most active during nondirective meditation.”
The study assessed 14 participants, who were highly experienced in a form of nondirective meditation, in this case Acem meditation. The participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) while they were resting, and as they practiced either a nondirective meditation technique or a concentrative technique.
Given the rising popularity of meditation and its associated benefits, Davanger believes it is important that the team determines the underlying mechanisms of the practice. He said: “In recent years there has been a sharp increase in international research on meditation. Several prestigious universities in the US spend a great deal of money to research in the field. So I think it is important that we are also active.”
To successfully meditate, a quiet location with few distractions is recommended, particularly for beginners. Dependant on the type of meditation you can perform the practice sitting, laying, standing, walking and in other mobile positions. Whichever position you are comfortable with maintaining focus is key. For example, the meditator may focus on a mantra (a specially chosen word or set of words), an object, or the sensations of the breath. Having an open attitude will also help you to successfully meditate. Learning to let distractions come and go naturally without judging them.
How could you use meditation to enhance your daily lifestyle?