Traditional Buddhist meditations are associated with reduced attention towards external stimuli, a new study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology finds. This correlates with the Buddhist principle of gradually withdrawing from sensory-focused levels of consciousness — which are connected to the five senses.
For centuries, meditation has been a cornerstone of Buddhist practice. Previously, scientific studies have shown that meditation can bring about positive changes in mental health, concentration, and stress reduction. In essence, meditation promotes a sense of calm and mindfulness, allowing the practitioner to focus on the present moment. This multifaceted topic prompted a team of researchers to unpack how Buddhist methods of mindfulness translate on a neurological level.
With the goal of understanding the intricate relationship between traditional Buddhist meditations and their impact on brain activity, a study was completed with a subject group of 115 experienced practitioners from various monasteries in India. Each participant was 25 to 80 years of age, right- handed, and did not have any hearing disabilities, injuries, previous concussions, or neurological disorders.
The monks’ brain activities were recorded using electroencephalography (EEG) — a method of recording brain activity that involves placing electrodes on the scalp to measure the electrical patterns generated by the brain. EEG was completed while they engaged in different meditative practices. For a balanced perspective, their brain activities were also measured during a passive state of relaxed wakefulness akin to letting the mind wander freely. Prior to recording their brain activity, the monks were asked about their ages and levels of education. Then, afterwards, they were told to assess the quality of their meditation.
The results revealed that, compared to the passive state, traditional meditative practices led to a decrease in MMN amplitude — a specific brain response that occurs when people hear sudden and rare external stimuli, such as a loud noise or unexpected sound. For the participants, traditional meditative practices led to a decrease in MMN amplitude, meaning that the experienced monk-practitioners were less responsive to these types of stimuli during their practices. In other words, they were less likely to be distracted or disturbed by unexpected sounds while in deep meditation.
Further, the study found reductions in other brain wave amplitudes associated with evaluating rare sensory distractions. Simply put, when in deep meditation, monks are less likely to be jolted by unexpected sounds or distractions—a reflection of deep internal focus and reduced attention to the outer world.
However, while the study provides a deeper understanding of the connection between meditation and brain activity, there are some considerations to bear in mind. The chosen control state of relaxed wakefulness may not be the most effective for drawing clear conclusions, as it may not stimulate the brain enough to produce significant responses. Future studies may benefit from the use of a more demanding cognitive task or a more stimulating environment in order to achieve a more optimal control state.
Furthermore, it is important to consider the potential individual differences in response to the chosen control state, as what may be effective for one participant may not be as effective for another. Additionally, the study did not differentiate the monks based on their age or meditation experience and instead kept them all in the same group — which could potentially influence the results. Still, although further investigation is required to enhance any understanding of Buddhist meditation practices, the insights gained from the study greatly provide a better comprehension of the significant effects of meditation on the brain.
The study, “Traditional Buddhist meditations reduce mismatch negativity in experienced monk-practitioners”, was authored by a team of fifteen researchers who were led by Sviatoslav V. Medvedev, a professor at the Institute of the Human Brain, at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, Russia.