A common misconception about meditation is that all of its forms and techniques produce roughly the same results.
However, this is an over-generalization. The mental procedures used by various traditions and schools of meditation are fairly dissimilar. And recent scientific research has verified that these different ways of meditating activate different areas in our brain.
Three main types of ‘meditation brain patterns’
After all, it is just common sense: as weightlifting, tennis, and Pilates strengthen specific muscles and produce different overall effects in the body, so do focusing on a candlelight, repeating mantras or trying to dispassionately observe one’s mental content induce changes in different areas of the brain.
So how to choose the one most suitable to you, from the diversity of techniques on offer?
One way to go about this is to follow the findings of neuroscience and separate three main meditation types based on brain waves they produce. We’ll discuss the results of each practice here below.
Meditation of concentrating: focused attention
Researchers have found that forms of meditation that involve a focus of attention (be it a physical object, a word, or a concept) increase the activity of beta and gamma EEG-waves.
These fast waves show an active and attentive state of consciousness.
One study investigated a Tibetan Buddhist meditation technique, in which the attention is focused on “loving-kindness and compassion” towards other beings. Strong activity was found in brain areas responsible for processing sensory information, emotions and attention.
Meditation of observing the mind: open monitoring
In several practices, like mindfulness meditation and some forms of Zen, no focus is present. Instead, the practitioner relies on an “open monitoring” of reality, during which one observes the contents of one’s experience without judging them.
There’s no manipulation, just pure, watchful presence.
According to EEG measurements, this contemplative sort of meditation increases the activity of slow theta waves, which reflects a relaxed state of mind.
Meditation of transcending: automatic self-transcendence
According to scientific research, the practice of Transcendental Meditation — as taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi — is unique in many a sense.
Researchers created a separate, third category for this technique: automatic self-transcending, since the mental procedure transcends itself and culminates in a mental experience of ‘unboundedness‘.
The activity of the thalamus — the area responsible for processing sensory information — decreases.
The frontal areas of the brain, which are associated with higher executive functions and moral reasoning, become more active. EEG recordings show that the activity of alpha waves also increases, indicating relaxation and calm.
What is even more interesting, the overall coherence of brainwaves increases during Transcendental Meditation.
Improved coherence of brain waves
The more coherent the brain is, the better its parts can communicate with each other. The practice of TM turns on the entire brain and makes it function as a holistic unit. Coherence is especially high among frontal alpha waves, which is a common feature of those people who report peak-performances in business or sports.
Researchers interpret it as a “sign of a more efficient and effective style of brain functioning.”
Another peculiar feature of the Transcendental Meditation technique is that there is no difference between brainwaves of experts and beginners — one masters it quickly.
During a TM session, the brainwave patterns of someone who meditated a few weeks ago are like ones who has practiced for decades. A meditator gets the experience of infinity right away.
What is then the benefit gained by continuing with practice, one may wonder?
The effects of long-time TM practice are seen in the patterns of activity. Experienced meditators are better able to integrate unboundedness into dynamic everyday action. This means that the TM technique is ideal for those who want to lead an active life. There is no need to leave society for transcendence and enlightenment.