Many people, whose only knowledge of meditation comes from popular culture, believe that it’s just another form of relaxation. Experienced practitioners however, know that a meditative state is not only one in which we’re relaxed but also one in which we are unusually alert and attentive to our experience. And for the first time a researcher has demonstrated this experimentally.
Australian PhD researcher Dylan DeLosAngeles, at the Flinders Medical Centre in Adelaide, has shown that meditation produces changes in brainwaves usually associated with increased alertness. He will present his findings at the IBRO World Congress of Neuroscience in Melbourne, Australia, later this month.
“There are a lot of subjective reports of meditation benefiting subjects on a personal level,” Mr. DeLosAngeles said in an Australian Broadcasting Corporation report. “I wanted to try and quantify some of that and look at how that was changing the brain on a neurophysiological level.”
In preparatory research for his PhD, he studied a type of Buddhist meditation that teaches people to achieve several distinct states. Such states are known in Buddhist terminology as dhyanas (or jhanas), and each dhyanic state represents a greater degree of focus and alertness. DeLosAngeles’ study may be the first scientific study of different levels of dhyana.
DeLosAngeles asked 13 people in a meditation group to describe their experiences of five different states, both before and after the study.
“We found common experiences in each person,” he said.
He says in the first meditative state, people focused their thoughts on breathing, and in the second state they stopped thinking and just breathed. In the third state, they felt a loss of body boundaries and spatial orientation, and in the fourth state they felt their mind and breath became one. In the fifth state, the meditators felt their mind expand into space.
Mr. DeLosAngeles then measured brain activity in each state using an electroencephalograph.
“We were able to correlate the changes in certain brainwaves against the changes in subjective experience,” he said.
He found that compared to the baseline condition — eyes closed and resting — people had distinct changes in brainwaves with each meditative state.
Also that the brains of people in the first state showed an increase in the amplitude of alpha brainwaves, which are are associated with alertness, focus, attention and concentration.
Mr. DeLosAngeles says there was also a decrease in delta brainwaves, which are associated with drowsiness or sleep.
He found that as meditators progressed through the other four stages of meditation, their alpha brainwaves slowly decreased in a linear fashion.
DeLosAngeles thinks this decrease is because the mind is already very alert and focused and does not have to try so hard to stay that way.
As meditators progressed into the last four states of meditation, their delta brainwaves also decreased, indicating a decrease in sleepiness, and conversely an increase in alertness.
DeLosAngeles says that his findings support the idea that meditation is a unique state.
“Meditation is a finely held state of attentiveness and alertness that differs from eyes-closed resting or sleep,” he said.
He says the findings add weight to the idea that meditation could be used to help people improve their ability to concentrate.