Not all types of meditation are created equally. Some alter our brainwave states so that we become more calm and centered, helping us sleep better at night or dampen the ‘monkey-mind’ which many traditions speak of, the tendency for our minds to wander from thought to thought incessantly. Others boost brain performance, or reduce stress.
According to a new study conducted by researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS), specific types of meditation – Vajrayana and Theravada styles of from the Tibetan tradition – elicit qualitatively different influences on human physiology and behavior, producing arousal and relaxation responses respectively.
Vajrayana and Theravada meditation cause differing physiological responses in the body and mind. Previously, meditation was thought simply to cause a relaxation response in the body, a term coined by Harvard Professor, Herbert Benson, but known widely by meditators for centuries.
While it is true that specific changes in our brains occur when we meditate, the practice is larger than distributing attentional systems, as Western scientists previously assumed. This may have been wrongly deduced since Theravada meditative practices were most often studied in a clinical context.
For the research, associate Professor Maria Kozhevnikov and Dr. Ido Amiha examined four different types of meditative practices: two types of Vajrayana meditation practices and two types of Theravada practices (Shamatha and Vipassana). They collected electrocardiographic (EKG) and electroencephalographic (EEG) responses and measured behavioral performance on cognitive tasks using a pool of experienced Theravada practitioners from Thailand and Nepal, as well as Vajrayana practitioners from Nepal.
The researchers watched meditators practice in both the disciplines and recorded their observations. Theravada meditation produced enhanced parasympathetic activation (what we know as the relaxation response). In contrast, Vajrayana meditation did not alter parasympathetic activity, but instead showed an activation of the sympathetic system (arousal of cognitive function).
Immediately after practicing a Vajrayana-style meditation, cognitive tasks became dramatically easier. This was thought to be due to an increase in attention and focus and the absence of what meditators call a ‘dull’ mind which can sometimes accompany a more relaxed state.
The researchers distinguished that such dramatic boost in attentional capacity is impossible during a state of relaxation. Their results show that Vajrayana and Theravada styles of meditation are based on different neurophysiological mechanisms – one causing relaxation of the nervous system, the other inducing higher cognitive awareness.
The researchers made an obvious conclusion that each of these types of meditation could be used according to need. In cases where one needs to perform intellectually, at one’s best, Vajrayana meditation could be especially useful. When stress and anxiety need to be reduced, or sleep induced, Theravada meditation could be practiced.
After seeing that even a single session of Vajrayana meditation can lead to radical enhancements in brain performance, Assoc Prof Kozhevnikov and Dr Amihai will be investigating whether permanent changes could occur after long-term practice. The researchers are also exploring how regular folks can enjoy the benefits of these practices, even if they are unfamiliar with the traditions from which they are derived.
Assoc Prof Kozhevnikov said:
‘Vajrayana meditation typically requires years of practice, so we are also looking into whether it is also possible to acquire the beneficial effects of brain performance by practicing certain essential elements of the meditation. This would provide an effective and practical method for non-practitioners to quickly increase brain performance in times of need.'”
Associate Professor Kozhevnikov and Dr. Amihai from the Department of Psychology at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences published the study in the journal PLOS ONE in July 2014.