Basic and applied research on meditation

Meditation techniques are becoming increasingly popular due to many personal advantages brought to practitioners. The number of studies on the beneficial effects of mindfulness increased dramatically.

The neurobiological effects of meditation are studied by different modalities ranging from HRV, EEG to fMRI. Here, we focus on EEG analysis as one of the most accessible research tools. There are different forms of meditation. For the sake of simplicity, the following is a brief characterization of brain waves during meditation excerpted from my PhD thesis (Teplan, 2006):

The increase of lower frequency bands (4-10Hz) for physiological rest during meditation was obtained by Aftanas and Golocheikine (2001). It reflects an emotionally positive state and internalized attention. Various types of meditation can be considered procedures with a relaxation effect (Banquet, 1973; Aftanas and Golocheikine, 2001; Travis, 2001). With an increase in meditation conditions, an increase in depth of relaxation usually appears, confirmed by subjective and other physiological parameters, such as respiratory rate, skin conductance, and plasma lactate. Neurophysiological indicators for a state of sensori-motorical and mental rest are usually considered to be the increase of alpha and theta frequencies (Banquet, 1973; Brown, 1970) and inter-hemispheric synchronization, especially frontal alpha coherence (Travis, 2001).

This paragraph briefly describes the history of my involvement: In this research area, I’ve been able to harness some 30+ years of first-hand experience with mindfulness practice together with academic research in the areas of biomedical engineering, neuroscience, and psychophysiology. In particular, measurement and analysis of biosignals from the human body, especially EEG. Accumulated experiences provide a sort of unprecedented position with an unusual merge of academic background and advanced personal insights. My meditation practice started at the age of 16, just 2 years after the velvet revolution and the fall of the iron curtain happened. This enabled our country to a new wave in literature, as well as activities, in this area. I’ve happened to become a student (oftentimes ritually accepted) of meditation in various meditation schools, visiting virtually all of them that were available in our city. From Indian Sri Chinmoy, Surabdshad yoga, to zen schools (Japanese, South Korean, master Kaisen), Tibetian diamond Buddhism, and several self-taught teachers from Czecho-slovakia. Finally, I ended up in Theravada Buddhism tradition by passing through five intense 2-week vipassana meditation retreats. Particularly appealing in this school to me was the modern western psychological approach to both theory and practice, training “manuals” and progress descriptions, together with Czecho-slovak community of instructors and practitioners (all thanks to its founder – a psychologist and researcher Mirko Frýba). During those times I spent 2 years living off civilization with everyday rich meditation practice in a mountain solitude. After returning to academia I’ve gradually evolved to fully distancing myself from religious or philosophical aspects tied with different meditation schools and rather inclining to a secular position. Well in accordance with academic trends and increasing production of mindfulness studies.

Below, in Fig. 2, there is a sample of EEG brain wave analysis (subject MT) recorded during the standardized experimental setup (Teplan, 2002) (Fig. 1). It depicts voluntary control of the frontal cortex brain activity during several minutes of mindfulness meditation. Power (right) reflects the total electrical power of the brain EEG signal. The four-time decrease was achieved within a single minute. The proportion of gamma waves (the fastest waves with a frequency over 25 Hz) gradually increased, which is in accordance with the outcomes of meditation-experienced monks (Lutz, 2004). 

Fig. 1: Online monitoring of brain wawes during neurophysiological data acquisition. Data were recorded in 2004 with then modern EEG laboratory equipment.
Fig. 2: Samples from our EEG study (2004). Trends in brain waves during vipassana meditation. Gamma waves (left) and total electrical power (right) were recorded from the right frontocentral area of the cerebral cortex.

Ongoing research

The goals of our investigation are two-fold: Finding out how meditation works and how it can be used for practical applications. Our open research questions deal with the description of physiological processes, interpretation of practical benefits of meditation, and objectification of the „spiritual“ praxis of meditation.

So far, we have formulated a number of research hypotheses serving as a possible base for several research projects. Currently, we are awaiting further funding or donors willing to support this research. Some of the research questions are related to the following points and theses:

  • Search for physiological features reflecting feasible changes in mind, body, and their regulation.
  • Search for physiological fingerprints/signatures/characteristic signs of mental peace and loving-kindness/heartfulness.
  • Possible secretion of happiness hormones (endorphins, dopamine) as a direct effect of entering into a deeper calm state of mind during meditation. Verification and objectivization of subjective experience. Indirect voluntary activation of respective glands.
  • Correlation of meditation absorption with decreased respiratory rate and oxygen consumption.
  • Characterization of DC EEG potentials during meditation.
  • What is „inner calm“? It appears a key concept for the understanding of general well-being. As one can feel it, it should be measurable as well. It seems to happen in a step-wise manner. This transition has to be described via continuous monitoring of a variety of physiological measures (derived from EEG, ECG, HR, HRV, GSR, BR, EMG, fMRI).
  • How to perform „human hacking“ by utilizing meditation?
  • According to personal experience, a subjectively clear state of mind can be achieved during meditation, accompanied by a reduction in blood flow in the frontal cortex achieved by volitional regulation. Certain phase transition is present and should be reflected in physiological recordings.
  • Does decreasing mental noise lead to better performance (in any profession, especially in sports)? Multiple hypothesis: More successful people have lower mental noise. Those who meditate have lower mental noise as well. Lower mental noise equals better psychical and physical health.  People who happen to use the Flow state in their everyday lives have lower mental noise, especially on days with extra quality of Flow. Advancements in Samatha and Vipassana (insight) meditation go hand-by-hand with the brightening of consciousness which is connected to decrease of mental noise.
  • Meditation increases contact with oneself and his or her own momentarily living and feeling. Why is this fundamentally pleasurable? Why have humans declined/degenerated from their naturalness in this regard? How could happen that evolutionarily highly advantageous increase in brain capacity has come out of control and turned humans into highly suffering beings just by increasing their mental noise with all the adverse practical consequences? How to fix this mankind’s primary problem through human hacking, secular meditation techniques, and combination with instrumental biofeedback?
  • Meditation as a tool for increasing of mental power: How and why it makes a difference?
  • Characterization of a „wandering mind“ by new psychophysiological measures. Development of a tool for counting a number of distracting/undesired thoughts.
  • Building of a new approach „mindfulness neurofeedback“.
  • Development of a training procedure for one of the most important qualities of human life: Introspection. In a form of a biofeedback game. Turning inside, to own self, inner integrity. How to measure this phenomenon? Setting a protocol for self-management. Moreover, I believe, that researching different aspects of introspection during meditation is a road towards a better understanding of consciousness and approaching the Hard problem.

With a focus on Nirvana (“Enlightenment”):

  • Neurophysiology of Vipassana meditation and its stages and achievements. Recording and novel characterization of Nibbana/Nirvana moments during vipassana practice employing EEG, ECG, HR, HRV, GSR, BR, EMG, and fMRI techniques.
  • Cognitive aspects of advanced states of Vipassana meditation. Strong potential for a paradigm shift in areas of mind, consciousness, subjectivity/objectivity, and the role of an observer in the physical/quantum world,…
  • Is Nibbana just a sort of switching off certain cognitive functions? Weakening of perception? Or, does there occur a more fundamental transition, stretching from materialistic into spiritual domains? It seems to be possible to proceed to a new level of understanding in one of the most prominent quests of mankind for understanding itself. However, a precise and adequate deployment of already known biomedical and engineering techniques combined with the first-person subjective experiences of advanced practice of insight meditation is indispensable.

Temporal verdict: Paradigm change in applied psychophysiology possible, but probably not in natural sciences.

To proceed with this research, we accept gifts and funding. We kindly ask possible donors to contact us.

References

Aftanas, L. and Golocheikine, S.: Human anterior and frontal midline theta and lower alpha reflect emotionally positive state and internalized attention: high-resolution EEG investigation of meditation. Neuroscience Letters 310, 57–60, 2001.

Banquet, J.: Spectral analysis of the EEG in meditation. Electroenceph. Clin. Neurophysiol. 35, 143–151, 1973.

Brown, B.: Recognition of aspects of consciousness through association with EEG Alpha activity represented by a light signal. Psychophysiology 6, 442–452, 1970.

Lutz A et al.: Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A;101(46):16369-16373, 2004.

Teplan, M.: Audio-visual stimulation and relaxation. Linear and nonlinear EEG measures, Dissertation proposal, Institute of Measurement Science, Slovak Academy of Sciences, 2006.

Travis, F.: Autonomic and EEG patterns distinguish transcending from other experiences during Transcendental meditation. Int. J. Psychophysiol. 42, 1–9, 2001.

Teplan, M.: Fundamentals of EEG measurement. In: Measurement Science Review, Section 2, Vol. 2, 2002.