Understanding the effects of the practice of Transcendental Meditation (Part 1)

Transcendental Meditation

Transcendental Meditation

We examined in a previous article in detail what happens in the body, including the brain, during the meditation practice of mindfulness (see about it http://management-vedique.com/understanding-the-effects-of-mindfulness-meditation/)Similarly, let us now consider what happens in the body and in the brain during the practice of Transcendental Meditation, a technique that presents itself as simple, natural and effortless. Through both  its mechanisms and results it is totally different from meditations with unfocused attention which mindfulness is part of. It is classified in the family of techniques with automatic transcendence. Based on the use of a mantra – a sound without meaning – it is practiced with eyes closed twice daily for twenty minutes.

This technique, derived from the Vedic tradition, was introduced to the West in the late 50s’ by the Indian sage Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He trained many teachers of Transcendental Meditation so that this technique may be taught uniformly around the world. Today, it is practiced worldwide by millions of people of all social classes and all religions. Numerous studies show that Transcendental Meditation is by far the most effective technique in reducing stress. A meta-analysis of 146 independent studies done by researchers at Stanford University, whose findings were published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, shows that Transcendental Meditation is twice as effective as other meditation techniques in regards to stress and anxiety. While a night of sleep decreases the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, by about 10%, a session of transcendental meditation reduces it from 30% to 40%! How does this technique impact the brain? Before answering this question, let us recall in a few lines on how our brain functions.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with Hans Selye, the inventor of stress

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with Hans Selye, the inventor of stress

This organ weighing one and a half kilo (three and a half pounds) consists of about 200 billion cells, 10% of which are neurons, 4 million kilometers of axons, and billions upon billions of synapses. It contains about 50% of the glial cells that act as « glue » and whose modulating action on neurotransmission is now recognized.  Its role is to unify the diversity of the outside world manifested as billions of bits of information with which it is constantly bombarded through the five senses. More and more experts in neuroscience admit that the seat of consciousness lies in the non-material activities of the brain, much like a radio station receiving its programs through electromagnetic waves.  One fundamental aspect of brain functions are the several ranges of electric waves that have been identified through the use of electroencephalography (EEG) technology: delta waves below 3.5 Hz, theta waves between 4 and 8 Hz, alpha waves between 8 and 12 Hz, beta waves between 12 and 25 Hz and finally gamma waves above 25 Hz. These waves testify to specific activities in the rest of the physiology: delta waves are usually associated with deep, dreamless sleep, theta waves correspond to a state of relaxation while awake, alpha waves characterize a state of deep relaxation while awake, beta waves are those of normal activity and finally gamma waves reflect intense activity, often associated with creativity.

Dr. Alarik Arenander explaining the brain

Dr. Alarik Arenander explaining the brain

Despite its visible complexity, the brain can be divided into four main anatomical parts: the front area of the prefrontal cortex, the rear areas of the parietal and occipital cortices as well as a temporal lobe on each side of the two hemispheres. The occipital area governs vision, the parietal area relates to space and time, the left temporal area governs memory, the right temporal area relates to sensory functions such as hearing and tasting as well as language, while the prefrontal cortex is linked to all the advanced functions pertaining to the identity and personality of the subject. In a broad outline, the front of the brain deals with the inner world of the subject, whereas the rear of the brain deals with our representation of the external world (vision, hearing, touch, etc.),or  the observed object. The prefrontal cortex of the human brain is located just behind the forehead. It governs essential cognitive functions such as intelligence, moral reasoning, beliefs, emotional stability, personality development, self-confidence, creativity, leadership, academic performance, the ability to make decisions, etc. Alpha waves define the subject and therefore the observer, beta waves define the observation process and gamma waves define the observed object.

The phenomenon of stress

The phenomenon of stress

Let us now examine in detail the phenomenon of stress, a term so overused that its exact characteristics are largely unrecognized by the public. Discovered by Hans Selye in the 1930s, stress is the organism’s response to a situation that an individual is afraid of not being able to manage because his prefrontal cortex judges it to be difficult. Conflict, examinations, medical procedures, work overload … the causes of stress are infinite. As a response to stress, the organism changes its chemistry in order to react. It is important to note that the same situation that may stress you may energize your neighbor. Stress is always a personal response resulting from an interpretation made by the prefrontal cortex. The latter – whose role is often compared to that of a CEO (Chief Executive Officer,) – manages the functioning of the brain. Under stress, regardless of its origin, it activates the amygdala, which in turn activates a level of vigilance in the body via the limbic brain, triggering a whole series of chain reactions in order to facilitate action and ensure survival in case of danger. On the level of the physiology, one observes an increase in heart rate, constriction of blood vessels or muscle contraction.  In addition to a rise in cortisol levels in the blood, the brain secretes epinephrine, a hormone that slows the digestive system and increases  respiratory rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar; all factors that prepare the body for action. This hormone momentarily unplugs the prefrontal cortex from the brain to allow the amygdala and the limbic areas which house the survival mechanisms to take over. Once the stressful event is passed, rest restores the normal functioning of the body, including that of the amygdala.

Post-traumatic stress affects military

Post-traumatic stress affects military

Extensive literature on the subject states that a certain amount of stress is necessary to be productive, when in fact all studies show that under the influence of stress the brain can neither work, nor learn, nor solve a problem properly. In reality, it is challenges or deadlines that lead us to act, to rally ourselves and to take risks. In case of mild stress, chemical changes in the body quickly fade and the parameters return to normal levels after one or more nights of restful sleep. If stress becomes chronic, the amygdala is activated permanently, creating a state of hypervigilance that a few nights’ rest is not enough to reverse. Such a state of hypervigilance is indicative of the fear felt by a soldier passing through a jungle, surrounded by enemies who can kill him at the slightest moment of inattention. He listens to every sound to detect the presence of an enemy soldier. Thus, the amygdala takes control of the prefrontal cortex, which also happens in case of ‘burn out’ or post-traumatic stress. Only the deep rest provided by meditation techniques reduces the stress of everyday life, but also the extreme stress caused by war-related violence and situations of ‘burn out’ at work.

Neuronal interconnections are destroyed

Neuronal interconnections are destroyed

Another well-known effect of stress: neural interconnections, whose richness ensures the proper functioning of the brain, are gradually destroyed, and as a result attention becomes fragmented. The individual loses the ability to concentrate. He is only able to place part of his attention on his actions. Consequently, a large amount of thoughts escape his attention. His perception of time is equally fragmented. He is simultaneously in the present, past and future. A study conducted at Harvard University by psychologist Matthew Killingworth shows that when under stress, we spend 46.9% of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we are doing. Thirty percent of our time is spent daydreaming during all our activities. Mental life is therefore marked with a certain « non-presence ».

Brain plasticity

Brain plasticity

The beneficial effects of most meditation techniques on stress rest on the plasticity of the brain; that is to say the ability of the brain to change its structures based on the stimuli it receives. « The brain is like a river, not a rock », explains Fred Travis, director of the Center for Brain, Consiousness and Cognition at Maharishi University of Management. Therefore, frequently used neural circuits, those with rich neural interconnections, consolidate and develop. Those that are used infrequently or are victims of stress eventually wither. Research shows that different meditation techniques increase the connections between different parts of the brain. [2] The white matter of the brain of people practicing a meditation technique shows more nerve fiber bundles connecting the different parts of the brain, including the corpus callosum, which connects the right and left hemispheres, the pyramidal tract which connects the brain to the spinal cord and finally the uniform beam linking the frontal lobe to the limbic system, the seat of emotions [3]. Among other findings, research shows a high level of activity in the parts of the brain that help form positive emotions such as enthusiasm, self-control and joy, accompanied by a lessening of activity in parts connected with negative emotions, in particular the area related to fear and anger.

Twenty minutes twice a day

Twenty minutes twice a day

The many researchers who worked on the various meditation techniques and their effects on stress met in 2013 in New York to bring some order and consistency to their work, particularly in terms of assessment criteria. Failing to define common criteria, they classified meditation techniques into three families that are differentiated not only by their procedures but also by how they impact the workings of the brain. These are « meditations with focused attention”, « meditations with unfocused attention » and « meditations with automatic transcendence. » Each type of meditation takes a different angle of exploring consciousness, each inducing different experiences and effects. Compassion Meditation, which belongs to the category of « meditations with focused attention, » develops the « emotional system » of the brain. The emotional life of the individual becomes richer and fuller. Mindfulness and Vipassana meditations, which are « meditations with open and unfocused attention, » develop mindfulness of situations and increase mental and physical well-being. Transcendental Meditation, which is a « meditation with automatic transcendence, » goes beyond the development of any particular competence.  It develops overall coherence in the brain, clearly visible by means of an electroencephalography (EEG) in the alpha waves in all parts of the brain, starting with the prefrontal cortex.

Alpha amplitude and coherence of the prefrontal cortex

Alpha amplitude and coherence of the prefrontal cortex

Indeed, a quick review of EEG readings during the practice of Transcendental Meditation reveals an immediate and significant increase in the amplitude of alpha waves in the prefrontal cortex, both on the left and right sides, coupled with strong coherence  between the left and right hemispheres, above 90%. This powerful range, such as the coherence of alpha waves, reflects a strong development across the prefrontal cortex and therefore the personality of the subject. So while the level of coherence in people not practicing any meditation technique has averaged between 25% and 35%, it averages between 60% and 70% during activity for those who practice Transcendental Meditation. We also note a increase in the activation of the default mode network (Default Mode Network) [4]during the practice of the technique, indicating a state of rest for the brain. A more detailed examination of the EEG permits us to  note that it is the Alpha 1 waves whose frequency extend from 8 to 10 HZ, which predominate in the layout. They are associated with the experience of transcendence and therefore represent the true signature of Transcendental Meditation.

Transcendence, the key to meditation

Transcendence, the key to meditation

But what is transcendence? In English, « to transcend » means to go beyond. Transcendence consists of simply going beyond thoughts, where lies the silent source of Being and from which emerge all thoughts. This experience is natural. Many people have this experience on occasion. Some artists have sung its praises in their poems. The famous « Oh time, suspend your flight » of the french poem “Le Lac” of Lamartine translates an inner experience of transcendence. With Transcendental Meditation – a technique in the family of meditations with automatic transcendence – this universal experience is systematic and no longer accidental. Note that the researchers did not find evidence of this experience in the practice of other meditation families.

Transcend

Transcend

In neuroscience, transcendence is associated with a physiological hypometabolic  condition called ‘Wakeful Hypometabolic State’, a state different from the three ordinary states of consciousness which are the waking state, the dream state and the deep sleep state. It can not be produced or induced by hypnosis or suggestion. Only a meditation technique can provide access. Through the Transcendental Meditation technique, this fourth state of consciousness, recognized by neuroscience, has been  the subject of more than forty years of research, particularly in the field of health. Transcendental Meditation begins where other techniques end:  while mindfulness meditation is intended to focus attention on the breath, observing thoughts and body sensations, Transcendental Meditation is not focused on breathing, nor thoughts, nor sensations. It automatically conducts the attention beyond thoughts and all mental activity, emotional or perceptual. The body experiences much deeper rest [5] than during deep sleep, providing better results in terms of physical and mental health compared to meditation techniques that are content to simply reduce stress.

Jo Cohen, HR consultant

Translation : Laurence Folz

 

[1]               CEO or Chief Executive Officer represents the president, the one who manages.

[2]              ‘Long-Term Meditators Self-Induce High-Amplitude Gamma Synchrony During Mental Practice’, Antoine Lutz,  Lawrence L. Greischar ,  Nancy B. Rawlings , Matthieu Ricard  and Richard J. Davidson, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

[3]              “Enhanced brain connectivity in long-term meditation practitioners”, Luders E, Clark K & al. Neuroimage. 2011 June 6.
[4]           Default mode network is a network of interacting brain regions which are active when a person is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest.
[5]             Oxygen consumption shows a very clear decrease in metabolism.

 

Une réflexion au sujet de « Understanding the effects of the practice of Transcendental Meditation (Part 1) »

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