Buddhism is now one of the fastest growing religions in the world, and there are many forms of meditation taught within the different lineages.
So among all those meditation types, do some affect the brain in different ways, from a physiological point of view?
It turns out that different types of meditation do have qualitatively differing effects on the mind as well as the body, say National University of Singapore researchers.
While the meditation style taught by the Vajrayana school of Buddhism produces an arousal response, the Theravada style produces a relaxation response.
The team found that especially Vajrayana meditation, associated with Tibetan Buddhism, can lead to cognitive performance enhancements.
Earlier studies had established meditation as mostly a relaxation response. They also attempted to categorize meditation as either involving focused or distributed attention systems.
But most of the studies focused on Theravada meditative practices, and neither one of these hypotheses got strong experiential support.
Which Meditation Types Were Studied?
Maria Kozhevnikov and Dr Ido Amihai of the National University of Singapore’s psychology department looked at four different types of meditative practices:
- Two types of Vajrayana meditation practices, visualization of self-generation-as-Deity and Rig-pa.
- Two types of Theravada practices, Shamatha and Vipassana.
Electrocardiographic (EKG) and electroencephalographic (EEG) responses were collected. The team also measured behavioral performance on cognitive tasks using a number of experienced Theravada practitioners from Thailand and Nepal, plus Vajrayana practitioners from Nepal.
What did Researchers See?
Physiological responses during the Theravada meditation differed considerably from those during the Vajrayana meditation.
Theravada meditation formed enhanced parasympathetic activation, in other words, relaxation. In comparison, Vajrayana meditation showed no evidence of parasympathetic activity but showed an activation of the sympathetic system, or arousal.
The researchers also saw an instant and dramatic boost in performance on cognitive tasks only after Vajrayana styles of meditation. Such dramatic increases in attention capacity is impossible during a state of relaxation.
This means we can now say the following:
Vajrayana and Theravada styles of meditation are based on different neuro-physiological mechanisms, which give rise to either an arousal or relaxation response.
State of Urgency
That Vajrayana meditation can lead to these striking improvements of cognitive performance suggests that Vajrayana meditation may be particularly useful in situations where it is important to perform at one’s best, such as during competition or states of urgency.
“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,” says Kozhevnikov.
“This would provide an effective and practical method for non- practitioners to quickly increase brain performance in times of need.”
Conversely, Theravada styles of meditation are an outstanding way to release tension, decrease stress, and encourage deep relaxation.
Even a single session of Vajrayana meditation was seen to lead to radical enhancements in brain performance, so Kozhevnikov and Amihai will in the future be researching if permanent changes could occur after long-term practice.
The researchers are also investigating how non-practitioners can benefit from such meditative practices.
Amihai I, Kozhevnikov M (2014)
Arousal vs. Relaxation: A Comparison of the Neurophysiological and Cognitive Correlates of Vajrayana and Theravada Meditative Practices.
PLoS ONE 9(7): e102990. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102990
PROUT Globe: “Buddhism May Regain Its Status as the World’s Largest Religion“.
Image: Nanette Hoogslag, Wellcome Images