Alterations in the structure of the brain — review & implications

Fox, Kieran C. R., & Rael B. Cahn. (2018). “Meditation and the brain in health and disease.” Forthcoming in The Oxford Handbook of Meditation, Farias, Brazier, & Lalljee, Eds. Full text.

The aim of this chapter is to provide an accessible introduction to the neuroscience of meditation. First, we review studies examining the relationship between meditation and alterations in the structure of the brain’s grey and white matter (so-called morphometric neuroimaging).

Next, we discuss findings from functional neuroimaging methods, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans, and what they have taught us about the brain’s patterns of activity during different forms of meditation, how meditation alters the brain’s response to various tasks and experiences, and how the expertise of long-term meditators might be harnessed to help us explore subtle aspects of human cognition.

Third, we review electrophysiological methods of measuring brain activity during meditation, such as electroencephalography (EEG), and how these findings relate to what we have learned from morphometric and functional neuroimaging.

Finally, we discuss the implications of this research and of meditation more generally for brain health and psychological well-being. Specifically, we focus on how meditation might ameliorate the deficits related to cognitive aging, as well as help ameliorate the symptoms and underlying neural substrates associated with neurodegenerative and psychiatric disease.

EEG measures manifestations of nondual awareness

Berman, A. E., & Stevens, L. (2015). EEG manifestations of nondual experiences in meditators. Consciousness and Cognition, 31, 1-11. Abstract

Highlights • Nondual states of consciousness reflect the culminating meditation experience. • These resulting states are differentiated from method or type of practice. • EEGs were recorded during meditation and states of nonduality. • Results suggest nondual states are neurologically distinct from general meditation. • Differentiating method and state will contribute to a more comprehensive taxonomy.

The holistic experiential benefits of meditation among a widely ranging population have been well established within the empirical literature. What remain less clear are the underlying mechanisms of the meditative process. A large impediment to this clarity is attributable to the lack of a unified and comprehensive taxonomy, as well as to the absence of clear differentiation within the literature between method of practice and resulting state.

The present study discusses and then attempts to identify within our sample a theoretically universal culminating meditative state known as Nondual Awareness, which is differentiated from the method or practice state. Participants completed an in-lab meditation, during which neurological patterns were analyzed using electroencephalography (EEG).

Analyses indicated significantly higher EEG power among slower wave frequencies (delta, theta, alpha) during the reported nondual events. These events appear neurologically distinct from meditation sessions as a whole, which interestingly demonstrated significant elevation within the gamma range.

Proposed software to study brain states in Zen meditators

Lin, H., Kuskos, J., & Palma, M. (2013). Towards a Meditation Brain State Model for Scientific Study of Chan. International Journal of Art, Culture and Design Technologies (IJACDT), 3(1), 1-11.

Abstract: Meditation has clear effects in bringing practitioners’ mind into a tranquil state and promoting both the mental and the physical health. The effect of meditation is measurable. The authors propose to establish a model for meditation state by applying modern experimental sciences to brain wave data. The authors start with a project that aims to create an application that takes electroencephalographic (EEG) data and exposes it to various analytical techniques so the resultant brain states can be studied and predicted. The authors present explanations of the design and implementation offered herein.

Furthermore, a summary of the application’s functionality is elucidated. Upon completion, the authors anticipate that this software can be used to produce important and dependable conclusions about a given subject’s brain states and correlate that to an identified physical or psychological activity.

Although their project is still in an early stage towards a model for meditation, through these studies, the authors believe they will be able to make meditation a beneficial practice to promote human’s life in modern society.

Enhances “emotional intelligence” in men

Lomas, T., et al. (2013). Men Developing Emotional Intelligence Through Meditation? Integrating Narrative, Cognitive and Electroencephalography (EEG) Evidence. Psychology of Men & Masculinity. Online Jun 24. Abstract.

Traditional masculine norms around emotions (e.g., inexpressiveness) can mean men have difficulties managing their emotions, contributing to potential mental health problems. However, it is recognized that men and masculinities are diverse, and that some men can positively self-manage their mental health, although this has received little attention in the literature. Uniquely, we sought to find men who had discovered ways to engage constructively with their emotions, in this case through meditation.

Thirty male meditators, recruited using a maximum variation sampling strategy, participated in a longitudinal mixed-methods study in the United Kingdom. Participants undertook 2 cognitive neuroscience sessions, approximately 1 year apart, composed of cognitive assessments of attention combined with electroencephalograph measurement during task performance and meditation.

In-depth narrative interviews exploring men’s experiences of meditation were also conducted at both time points, analyzed using a modified constant comparison approach. Taken together, the quantitative and qualitative results suggest that men developed attention skills through meditation, although there were variations according to previous meditation experience (e.g., a sharper longitudinal increase in theta amplitude under meditation for novice practitioners). Moreover, development of attention appeared to enhance men’s emotional intelligence, which in turn could be conducive to well-being. The results have implications for psychologists working with men, pointing to the potential for teaching men about better regulating their emotions for improved well-being.