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Intriguing Study Results.
While many people accept that meditation can produce a temporary state of calm, modern scientific research suggests that meditation can induce experience-based structural changes in the brain.
It can also significantly alter brain-wave activity. Meditators have reported changes in their own psychological functioning that endure even after they’ve stopped meditating, suggesting positive long-term benefits. Most of the studies showing long-term meditation benefits have focused on Buddhist monks who have practiced meditation as a central activity throughout their entire lives.
However, a recent study led by Massachusetts General Hospital, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, showed that intensive meditation practice by highly-stressed adults appears to produce structural changes in parts of the brain that govern attention and sensory processing. The study showed that meditation could slow down the thinning of the cortex that frequently occurs with aging, suggesting more long-term benefits of meditation. Neuroimaging showed that certain parts of the cerebral cortex were thicker in people who were involved in Buddhist Insight Meditation, which focuses on “mindfulness,” and lucid awareness of feelings, mental states and sensations. These participants typically practiced meditation around six hours per week for an average of nine years.
This study showed changes in areas of the brain involved in the regulation of things like breathing and heartbeat, in the area that modulates emotion and thought, as well as in the area involved in reward-based decision making.
Some neuroimaging studies in London funded by the National Institute of Health have shown that long-term meditation practice can dampen the brain’s response to pain by up to 40 or 50 percent. Meditation seems to invoke a physiological state that fundamentally alters how the brain processes pain signals.
An internal-energy circulating technique known as Sahaja meditation has been studied using an device called a Quantitative Electroencephelogram (QEEG) which can produce a 2D map of the electrical currents in the brain as the meditator shifts from normal thinking into a state of thoughtless observation and awareness. When this first happens, significant “alpha wave” activity occurs. This alpha wave activity, which has been recorded in many different styles of meditation, is an electrochemical hallmark of relaxation and it is considered to be a healthy state of mind.
But as meditators entered further into the thought-free state of awareness, theta waves emerged, showing up in the middle line that separates the front and top of the brain. Precisely at the moment the theta activity became more pronounced, the meditators reported that they experienced a oneness with the present moment (muted awareness of the past and future)—a state that is the hallmark of the Sahaja meditative experience. The alpha power range increased around the same area of the brain, which seems to suggest a slowing down of brain activity in the parts that govern external attention and mental effort.
This ability to slow down the parts of the brain that create “chaos” and extraneous thought-forms maybe be promising for people with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Seeing that meditation helps the fine-grained control over attention, they may find great benefit in “meditation to improve concentration.”
The two areas of higher recorded theta activity are closely mapped to the two main metaphysical “chakras” in the brain that were described by ancient Sanskrit and Hindu philosophers—the “third eye” or angyna chakra and the “crown” or sahasrara chakra, which was associated with the limbic system. These specific, precise locations where increased theta activity is recorded could suggest that deep brain structures, like the limbic system, are being stimulated. Subjective experiences like emotion and mood are regulated by the limbic system, so this gives some perspective as to why meditation can have a positive impact on mental issues like depression and anxiety.
Few other known meditation techniques have shown this kind of specific & measurable change in the the brain’s theta activity, which suggests that there may be something unique about Sahaja meditation. Since the brain-wave changes occurred at the exact moment the test subjects reported entering into deep meditative consciousness, this suggests that technology may one day enable us to study mystical states of consciousness in full depth and detail.
Ravi Singh is a California-based IT professional who has practiced yoga and meditation for the past 15 years. He works on corporate information systems by day, and on freelance writing at night.