Different types of meditation elicit different types of physiological response, and can vastly improve cognitive skills.
A team from the National University of Singapore (NUS) explored four types of meditation practiced by Buddhists, from two main branches of the tradition, Vajrayana (Deity and Rig-pa) and Theravada (Shamatha and Vipassana). From each tradition, one style of meditation was designed to relax and another to arouse the senses.
The Singapore team points out in a paper published in PLOS ONE that prior research has focused on Theravada meditation mainly, and its ability to induce relaxation and heighten alertness. Coauthors Maria Kozhevnikov and Ido Amihai argue that the evidence put forward for this theory is hardly empirical. So they invited practitioners of all four types of meditation from Nepal and Thailand to undergo electrocardiographic (EKG) and electroencephalographic (EEG) monitoring during and after meditation, and while undergoing cognitive tasks afterwards.
The differences between the two types of meditation were staggering.
Theravada meditation did indeed prove to be good for relaxation. The team picked up increased parasympathetic activity in subjects practicing it — the parasympathetic nervous system being associated with resting and recuperation activities. Conversely, there was little activation of this during or after Vajrayana meditation. Instead the sympathetic system — related to arousal and the “fight or flight” function — was heightened.
During a second study, the Singapore team asked participants to work on two computer-based visual processing task before and after a 20-minute meditation session. There was, write the authors, “an immediate dramatic increase in performance on cognitive tasks following only Vajrayana styles of meditation, indicating enhanced phasic alertness due to arousal”.
The EEG results from the two different types of meditation were totally different, despite “highly similar activity between meditations within the same tradition”.
The team wants to run a larger study, recognising the limits of using a relatively small sample size. On top of this, practitioners came from different cultural backgrounds, so this could impact the results somewhat. Additionally, the team wants to start extracting blood samples to find out just how much the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are activated by the activity, and whether it would be possible to, overtime, achieve permanent changes in a person. No one has studied what changes, physiologically, occur in an individual over the course of their lives spent practicing meditation. On the flip side, finding a way to achieve those positive elements instantly, would be great.
“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,” said Kozhevnikov. “This would provide an effective and practical method for non-practitioners to quickly increase brain performance in times of need.”
Liat Clark is a journalist with opinions and stuff. She is an Associate Editor at Wired.co.uk covering weird science, politics, tech, startups and culture.
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