Focused Meditation Changes Brain Activity Differently Then Open Monitoring Meditation
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“It’s like asking a sport expert ‘what does sport do to your body’. The expert would say, do you mean swimming or horse-riding? You can imagine mental training being as complex.” – Tanya
Meditation training has been shown to improve health and well-being. It has also been found to be effective for a large array of medical and psychiatric conditions. One problem with understanding meditation effects is that there are a number of different types of meditation. Classically they’ve been characterized on a continuum with the degree and type of attentional focus. In focused attention meditation, the individual practices paying attention to a single meditation object, often the breath. In open monitoring meditation, the individual opens up awareness to everything that’s being experienced including thoughts regardless of their origin.
One way to observe the effects of meditation techniques is to measure the effects of each technique on the brain’s activity. This can be done by recording the Magnetoencephalography (MEG). It measures the magnetic fields associate with the brain’s electrical activity. This produces a mapping of structures that are active moment to moment. Whether these different meditation types produce different patterns of activity in the brain has not been extensively studied.
In today’s Research News article “Mining the Mind: Linear Discriminant Analysis of MEG Source Reconstruction Time Series Supports Dynamic Changes in Deep Brain Regions During Meditation Sessions.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8556220/ ) Calvetti and colleagues recruited 2 Buddhist monks who were highly experienced meditators and recorded their brain activity with Magnetoencephalography (MEG) over 6-minute periods while at rest, during focused attention meditation, and during open monitoring meditation.
They found that different brain area activities occurred during the two types of meditation particularly in the anterior and posterior cingulate cortex and insular cortex. They also found differences in the activities of core structures in the limbic system including the amygdala, accumbens, putamen, thalamus, and caudate.
That the two meditation styles produce different brain activity patterns is not surprising as they differ considerably in cognitive contents, particularly the involvement in attentional processes. The structures involved, however, are interesting as they are in general associated with emotional processing (limbic system and cortical areas) and motor movements (Caudate and Putamen). During neither meditation style are there either high emotions or motor movements. So, there is no clear reason why these structures should differ between focused attention meditation and open monitoring meditation. It should be kept in mind that the participants are unusual in the amount of practice and the number of years of practice and do not represent the general meditation population.
It is clear, however, that focused meditation changes brain activity differently than open monitoring meditation in highly experienced meditators.
“Many meditation techniques are available today. Contrary to common belief there are distinct differences between techniques, such as the effort involved, their impact on the brain, and whether or not they result in verifiable benefits.” – Transcendental Meditation
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Calvetti, D., Johnson, B., Pascarella, A., Pitolli, F., Somersalo, E., & Vantaggi, B. (2021). Mining the Mind: Linear Discriminant Analysis of MEG Source Reconstruction Time Series Supports Dynamic Changes in Deep Brain Regions During Meditation Sessions. Brain topography, 34(6), 840–862. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10548-021-00874-w
Meditation practices have been claimed to have a positive effect on the regulation of mood and emotions for quite some time by practitioners, and in recent times there has been a sustained effort to provide a more precise description of the influence of meditation on the human brain. Longitudinal studies have reported morphological changes in cortical thickness and volume in selected brain regions due to meditation practice, which is interpreted as an evidence its effectiveness beyond the subjective self reporting. Using magnetoencephalography (MEG) or electroencephalography to quantify the changes in brain activity during meditation practice represents a challenge, as no clear hypothesis about the spatial or temporal pattern of such changes is available to date. In this article we consider MEG data collected during meditation sessions of experienced Buddhist monks practicing focused attention (Samatha) and open monitoring (Vipassana) meditation, contrasted by resting state with eyes closed. The MEG data are first mapped to time series of brain activity averaged over brain regions corresponding to a standard Destrieux brain atlas. Next, by bootstrapping and spectral analysis, the data are mapped to matrices representing random samples of power spectral densities in α, β, γ, and θ frequency bands. We use linear discriminant analysis to demonstrate that the samples corresponding to different meditative or resting states contain enough fingerprints of the brain state to allow a separation between different states, and we identify the brain regions that appear to contribute to the separation. Our findings suggest that the cingulate cortex, insular cortex and some of the internal structures, most notably the accumbens, the caudate and the putamen nuclei, the thalamus and the amygdalae stand out as separating regions, which seems to correlate well with earlier findings based on longitudinal studies.