by Hans TenDam
A few months ago I received an article that summarized fifty years of research into what happens in the brain during meditation.* I read it eagerly. What have these 50 years of research brought us?
Not too much actually. It has been proven that during meditation the functioning of the brain changes. Pretty self-evident, it seems to me. How does it change?
Meditation shifts attention. It slows brain waves, increasing theta and alpha. It increases blood flow in some frontal brain regions.
Less self-evident is that long-term meditation somewhat changes the brain.
Interestingly, as to brain functioning, there seem to be two basic types of meditation. One keeps the attention open and flowing, the other concentrates the attention on one subject. The article calls these two styles mindfulness and concentration. They are poles, not opposites, as intermediate positions are possible. The brain states in meditation, especially of the mindfulness-type, are practically indistinguishable from those of hypnosis, progressive relaxation, and trance.
Recent studies indicated that meditation helps to relieve depression. Also, not very unexpected.
My general conclusion was that all these research has some interest for brain researchers, but none at all for meditators. The brain follows the mind, not vice versa. As someone said, when we would be able to do MRI-scans with a moving body, we would find that the blood flow in the body of a marathon runner would be quite different from that same person in rest. But that doesn’t mean that changed blood flows make someone run a marathon. It is the running of the marathon that makes the blood flow differently. The changed blood flow enables the running, not causing the running. So the changed brain activity enables the meditation.
We see that clearly when there are physical malfunctions. A cramp or a blood clot may force the marathon runner to stop. An aneurysm or closing the arteries to the head will immediately disrupt the meditative state.
More in general, the body reacts to our depression. In some cases though, physical malfunctions may trigger psychological problems. In such cases, medication helps. In all other cases, medication may suppress the bodily reaction to psychological problems and so the current mental state may be alleviated. But nothing is solved. Alleviation has real value. It enables to regain some energy to deal with the problems. Or it seems to lessen the need for any solution.
Psychedelic and recreational drugs may loosen physical barriers to desirable mental states. Usually, the temporary high is followed by an extra low when the drug has been neutralized by the body.
Unsolved psychological problems are so often dumped on the body, that we can use the body to locate them, so we can explore and resolve them. But also psychological resources seem to sleep in or close to the body, as we can wake them up by attention to specific locations in the body.
It seems that more and more medical doctors are drawn to our field. Great! For many of us this means some recognition of what we do. But there is a much more fundamental benefit. We will learn more of the intimate interaction between body and mind, between body and psyche. We have to offer a lot to the medical profession, especially in problems of the nerve system, the endocrine system and the auto-immune system, and most of all in the many syndromes that are as intangible as they are real: from whiplash to chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and pelvic instability.
But they will have much to offer us also: a much more precise understanding of the body in therapy, especially in that aspect we usually call energy work.
One day, psychotherapy and medication may even become bedfellows, instead of mortal enemies.
The combination of psychology and medicine may also open up a new field: the treatment of vampires and zombies. The editor of our EARTh-News will be thrilled to hear this.
*) B. Rael Cahn and John Polich – Meditation States and Traits: EEG, ERP, and Neuro-imaging Studies; In Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 132, No. 2, 180–211, 2006