First ever neuroimaging study of people in the midst of Transcendental Meditation

power in human hand, inspiration abstract, world, universe inside your mind, watercolor paintingBy Christian Jarrett

It is possible to pay attention effortlessly, your mind “pulled by the inherent nature of the object of experience”. In fact, with practice, doing so can “lead you to experience inner silence, tranquility, peace and transcendence”. That’s according to a research team led by Michelle Mahone at the California School of Professional Psychology, who have published in Brain and Cognition what they describe as the first neuroimaging study of people in the midst of Transcendental Meditation (TM).

The 16 women volunteers (average age 60) had practised TM for an average of 34 years, meaning they had amassed around 36,000 hours of meditation practice. The researchers scanned the meditators’ brains while they lay resting with their eyes closed and then while they meditated for 10 minutes. The volunteers’ extensive mastery at meditation allowed them to achieve “bliss”, “deep restfulness” and “clear transcending” despite the noise and discomfort of the brain scanner.

Compared with rest, the scans showed that while meditating the volunteers exhibited increased activity at the front of their brains (in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate gyrus), alongside reduced activity in the cerebellum and the pons – structures at the back of the brain and in the brain stem. These latter activity reductions have not been observed in brain scan studies of other forms of meditation that involve focused attention (for example on one’s breathing) or open monitoring (paying mindful non-judgmental attention to one’s thoughts and sensations).

The researchers said their findings were consistent with the idea that Transcendental Meditation involves a unique form of effortless attention, in which “the attention is guided by the inherent pleasure of inner transcendence, rather than through cognitive evaluation and control”. The increase in frontal brain activity reflects the engagement with a specific experience, they said, while the minimal control required was reflected in reduced activity in the cerebellum and pons.

Sceptical readers may feel that the researchers are guilty of “reverse inference” – making assumptions about the meaning of the brain activity patterns that they observed. Mahone’s team said further research is needed to directly compare brain activity during different meditation practices.

fMRI during Transcendental Meditation practice

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

9 thoughts on “First ever neuroimaging study of people in the midst of Transcendental Meditation”

  1. Consider physical pain. As a subjective experience (for a patient), physical pain is very real although a scientist can explain this pain using a great deal of neuro-jargon (in terms of what neurons/neuro chemicals are involved etc.) – here, neither the patient nor the scientist is ‘wrong’ in their analyses – but the two analyses represent TWO VERY DIFFERENT LEVELS of analyses.

    Throughout history, in different cultures, extremely calm mind-states have been described (these states are achieved through gradually and systematically training the mind to not drift into thoughts involving rumination, worry etc.). In Buddhist teachings, these mind-states are termed “absorptions” and are described as being of intense pleasure and happiness, which surpasses pleasures that arise from the dependence on material objects.

    So, when considering calm mind states such as TM experiences described here – we have to SEPARATE subjective experience from third person level of analyses. Every single one of us (including scientists who study the brain) experience subjective experience that is changing moment by moment. This subjective experience represents an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT level of analyses. These two levels are explained in the following article:
    Karunamuni, N. (2015). The Five-Aggregate Model of the Mind. SAGE Open, 5 (2).

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  2. The fMRI findings on TM should be taken in the context of the EEG studies on TM:

    eLORETA analysis of TM EEG shows that TM does NOT reduce activity in the default mode network compared to normal mind-wandering rest, and this lends support to the claim that TM is truly effortless (1, 2) .Meanwhile, all other well-researched meditation practices *do* reduce activity in the DMN. (3, 4)

    TM’s EEG signature is coherence in the alpha-1 frequency range in the frontal lobes and the generators of this coherence seem to be in the DMN (2, 5). Meanwhile, all other well-researched practices actually *reduce* EEG coherence in all frequencies in all areas of the brain during meditation. 4, 6)

    The above, combined with the finding that TM reduces activity in the cerebellum and the pons compared to normal mind-wandering rest, suggests that TM has an unusually restful effect on the brain.

    The fact that long-term, mindfulness actually increases cortical thickness in the areas of the cerebellum and the pons (7, 8), again suggests that TM has a unique effect on the brain as one does not expect increased cortical thickness in a specific region to result from a practice that reduces activity in that specific region..

    What this unique effect actually *means* is another question yet to be answered.

    1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19862565

    2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27816783

    3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4054695/

    4) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27508242

    5) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17145686

    6) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22266174

    7) http://www.psyn-journal.com/article/S0925-4927(10)00288-X/abstract

    8) https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00033/full

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  3. Control consisted of 1 min of resting and 1 min of counting – reported elsewhere.
    TM lasted for 10 min
    No counterbalancing that I could see.

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