If you want to know why people use meditation, whether or not it works, and how to reap the benefits of meditation, then you want to read this article.
- Meditation refers to different wants to focus, contemplate, and think as well as techniques for making it all easier to do.
- There are roughly three different “groups” of meditation that, due to the focus being different, confer different health benefits to the body.
- If you want to reduce anxiety and trauma symptoms, improve attention and focus, or get a boost in brain power for free then meditation may be a viable technique.
…oh sorry, didn’t see you there.
I was too busy boring into the depths of my own being.
Not literally, of course, don’t want to accidentally lobotomize myself. I just sat on my couch and said “ohm” rhythmically for 30 minutes. My “ohming pigeon” technique is a much safer way of focusing my chakra like little babushka dolls filled to the brim with qi.
…what do you mean that doesn’t make any sense?
Honestly, meditation doesn’t make much sense from the outset and there are more than enough reasons to be skeptical of it. Eastern medicine that’s imported to the West and sold to stay-at-home moms don’t really have the best track record (looking at you Reiki).
And if the stuff had evidence for it then maybe, just maybe, we can use some English words to refer to it? Seems like a better way to approach the topic, you know, using words we all know.
Plus the more I say “chakra” the more I’m reminded of my high school days where I may or may not have run around like a certain belligerent anime protagonist (Can memories cause physical pain? Yes. Yes they can).
So, using Western science and Western terminology, can we unravel what is going on with meditation? Can we link it to demonstrable neurological and behavioral changes?
Sort of… let’s try anyways!
What Is Meditation?
Let’s start with a definition, I know you all love those things. Merriam-Webster, the world’s most widely cited source for starting a section in a low-effort manner, defines meditation as:
A discourse intended to express its author’s reflections or to guide others in contemplation.
While “meditating” is (roughly) defined as engaging in practices and techniques to foster contemplation.
And it’s here that we meet our first roadblock.
If meditation is just contemplation, can’t I just reflect on the stuff I did throughout the day? Is regretting what I said at work while taking a shower a form of meditation?
Well, just as all roads lead to Rome so can all forms of contemplation eventually lead to a meditative state. That doesn’t mean that we can’t have a more practical or direct route to our destination, though.
And with that, in research there seems to be multiple different “techniques” or “focuses” on how to meditate. There are likely more than this in existence but, for the purpose of this article, I just want to focus on three:
- Body focused (aka “focused attention”), where you focus on something like breathing for a prolonged period of time without breaking focus.
- Mantra focused (aka “open monitoring”), where you intensely focus but the target of your focus changes from one thing to the next, like reading a script.
- Transcendental, where you forgo focusing on any cue and instead do the opposite. Ignore cues and sort of “fall” into a meditative state (yeah, vague, I know).
These three “focuses” of meditation provide a good starting point for understanding how to meditate and the various benefits of meditation, and which kind might be worth trying (if any).
Body Focused Meditation: Your Inner Jet Li
To visualize body focused meditation (henceforth BFM but also known as “focused attention”) we can look to classical media examples such as:
- Martial artists moving their body with poise while controlling their breathing.
- Bodybuilders resting between sets, closing their eyes, and attempting to form a mind-muscle connection (which is a highly related concept).
- Tai Chi in its entirety, which is a martial art with a heavy focus on health and longevity.
The mind-muscle connection rings true here as body focused meditation is a form of “cue-based meditation” (contemplation based on cues) where the cue is your own body (cues from within).
Each kind of meditation acts on different parts of the brain, with this type of mediation focusing a lot on what are known as gamma brain waves (20-Hz to 50-Hz) which are related to attention-based activities like focusing on a single topic for prolonged periods.
Yup, that’s right, different forms of meditation have evidence to show regional activation in the brain. Pretty cool, eh? Your brain can also changes it’s patterns simply by focusing on being caring.
If you want a form of meditation that could potentially improve attention, focus, and improve upon a mind muscle connection or improve breathing then focusing on your body or internal cues is the way to go.
Now, while there are tons of potential topics to talk about here we’re just going over the evidence. We’re limited to what’s been studied.
Which is essentially just Tai Chi…
On the plus side, Tai Chi is associated with reductions in cancer-related fatigue, reductions in falls seen in the elderly (even with cognitive impairment), and increased “perceived impact” on physical wellness and social well being in older adults.
And that alone is probably why many of you might be interested in this topic; better bodily awareness and proprioception (the “sixth sense”) will probably lead to improved sports performance.
At least one study has found a benefit to insomnia and sleep comparable to cognitive behavioral training (which is the best non-drug intervention) with another finding some mood benefits so it’s not like all the benefits are related to physique; physique is just the niche.
Now, we could go on for quite some time here; there appear to be 381 human trials (according to PubMed) for Tai Chi, but ultimately what we can see from the trends:
- There are benefits to physical wellness which seem to be most well researched as it pertains to reducing falls in the elderly.
- There are aspects of mental health intimately linked to the body such as fatigue, pain, and sleep that seem to be improved from Tai Chi.
- There are general improvements in bodily awareness and attention.
So Tai Chi, as the most well researched representative of “mindful movement” as this review puts it and may also apply to things such as the martial art Ki-Aikido and the rehabilitative “Feldenkrais Method” generally are the best option for a form of meditation/contemplation for improving bodily awareness.
Tai Chi is very well researched for improving physical control of one’s body and carries with it some additional benefits to fatigue, sleep, pain, and bodily awareness.
Mantra Focused Meditation: Repeat After Me
Mantra-focused meditation is how this article will approach the topic of “open monitoring” meditation.
This is also a form of “attentive” meditation in a way, since you need to focus on something, but rather than sustained focus on a single thing (such as focusing on your breathing for 30+ minutes) your focus changes on a moment-to-moment basis.
Like, focusing on each passing word in a recitation.
Of course, open-monitoring meditation is now limited to just reciting words although that’s probably one of the easiest ways to go about this. Let your attention “flow like a river” rather than be “static like a rock.”
Do this and you will find that this form of meditation will then affect a different part of the brain.
Open-monitoring meditation works on a different area of the brain than does BFM, as while the former focused on gamma waves open-monitoring specifically focuses on theta waves (4-Hz to 8-Hz) and is also related to concepts of mindfulness.
This specific frequency is also related to working memory, mental imagery, and reward/self-control concepts. This review, which also mentions that this brain region is invoked in precise hand movements, states:
We expect frontal midline theta in a meditation that involves monitoring of ongoing experience without high levels of control or manipulation of the contents of experience.
Which falls in line with the idea that this is the type of meditation that relies heavily on focus, but precisely changes the focus from one topic to the next.
Mantra-focused meditation, or open monitoring, is an attention-based meditation that focuses on many things in sequence (either predetermined or ad libitum) implicated in both memory, reward, and content manipulation.
Similar to the more targeted focus, this form of cue-based meditation can also improve cognitive attention in otherwise healthy subjects.
Transcendental Meditation: Nonsensical Qi
Transcendental meditation is a form of meditation without any cues.
It dabbles mostly in alpha-coherence and synchrony (another region of the brain distinct from the previous two mentions) with long-term practitioners being able to redirect their brain’s blood flow to their certain brain areas related to judgement.
It’s the type of meditation where people repeat a single word, that bears no inherent meaning, over and over again. Rather than focusing on a cue you aim to avoid all cues.
It’s the type you think of when you think of people repeating “ohm” over and over again, but it doesn’t need to be ohm just something that means nothing to you.
Transcendental meditation is the most effective form of meditation for reducing anxiety and trauma, seeks to avoid cues to reach a “transcendental” state.
When we look at the more significant studies conducted on transcendental meditation we can see reductions in trauma and stress symptoms for both male and female prisoners with reductions in PTSD symptoms in both refugees and combat veterans.
On the less significant side of things, transcendental meditation can also bring about improvements in the well being of care workers, at least once being seen to reduce the rates of burnout in teachers. A simple reduction in stress is also seen in college-aged students.
It seems transcendental meditation can reduce stress regardless of magnitude.
What Type of Meditation Should I Opt For?
When looking at what type of meditation you want to try out simply look at both your goals and the areas of your behaviors that you’re not really the best at.
- Want to improve balance and physical performance? Body-focused/Single-target attentive meditation, which focus on prolonged focus on a single target, seem to be the way to go.
- Want to improve memory? Open-monitoring/mindfulness meditation, which focus on sustained attention over multiple topics, seems to be ideal.
- Want to improve handling social situations? Again, open-monitoring/mindfulness seems to be the one here.
- Want to improve attention? Either of the aforementioned could work but let’s give a nod to whichever one is more similar to why you want better attention. Open-monitoring is probably better if you are a babysitter who needs to look after 10 kids at once while single-target might be better for an athlete.
- Want to reduce trauma, anxiety, and PTSD? Transcendental is the way to go.
- Want to meditate for something related to a religious experience? Probably transcendental again but the setting itself may be more important (meditating in a church versus a gym).
Feel free to dabble in multiple types though. Not like doing one form of meditation alters the brain in a way that prevents you from doing the others after all.
The Bottom Line on Meditation
Ultimately, meditation is a practice that’s worth looking into and perhaps doing a bit here and there each week.
It’s rare to come across techniques that are neither supplements nor exercises that have such profound cognitive effects.
Look at the type of meditation that fits with your goals the best, perhaps do some more reading on “how” to perform these types of meditation practically, and give it a shot to see if you can get the benefits of sitting down and thinking correctly.