According to a 2007 survey completed by the United States government, almost 10% of the American population confirmed that they had been engaged in meditation during the past twelve months.
Given such a high volume of practice, scientists have taken an interest in what happens to the brain during meditative states.
Meditation is thought to improve a person’s ability to concentrate, as well as decrease anxiety or stress. The emotional benefits are said to have a positive effect on a person’s overall health and wellness.
Do the two predominant styles of meditation hold up to scientific scrutiny?
While practices may vary in form, researchers have determined that all meditation falls into one of two categories:
Concentrative meditation: Where a person is focusing on something specific, such as repetitive breathing or a specific image or thought. During this type of meditation, the singular focus allows the person to block out all other thoughts or activities, such as surrounding noises or actions.
Non-directive meditation: During this type of meditation, a person simply relaxes and lets the mind roam free. This state often utilizes soft sounds, such as cascading water, to help the person induce a completely relaxed state.
To uncover the science behind each type of meditative practice, scientists used MRI scans to record the brain activity in 14 test subjects. Each participant engaged in a recorded period of regular resting, a recorded period of non-directive meditation and a recorded period of concentrative meditation.
The results, published in the Frontiers of Human Neuroscience Journal, validated the belief that meditation does in fact reduce stress and improve mood.
The results showed that during concentrative meditation, where a person focuses on a single thought or image, the brain activity was very close to the state of resting. So, concentrative meditation can be considered a form of wakeful rest for your mind.
Findings with Non-Directive Meditation
During non-directive meditation, where the mind is allowed to wander freely, the brain activity was actually higher in areas associated with processing thoughts and emotions than when in a state of rest.
According to principals in the study, these findings suggest that nondirective meditation “allows for more room to process memories and emotions than during concentrated mediation. Researchers also remarked:
This area of the brain has its highest activity when we rest. It represents a kind of basic operating system, a resting network that takes over when external tasks do not require our attention. It is remarkable that a mental task like nondirective meditation results in even higher activity in this network than regular rest.