A Scientific Approach to Meditation.
Updated: Jan 27, 2020
I’m told that practicing meditative techniques is the equivalent of a physical workout for the brain. The idea is appealing and yet it’s so hard to make it stick as a habit. I know the science behind the practice and I’ve studied countless research papers on the benefits to health and wellbeing and yet most guided meditations fail to hit their mark.
As soon as I find a nice soothing voice to listen to, the guide begins to veer off topic into religious or spiritual practices. What if I don’t want to learn about Buddhist monks or swear allegiance to whichever swami has been fortunate enough to devote their lives to the teachings of a particular faith?
My intention is to achieve optimal health and a vast reduction in my responses to stress, not to become the next Olympic level guru.
With such sound scientific principles behind the art of relaxation, it makes no sense at all to insist on tying meditation to a specific religion. To achieve a state of quiet tranquillity may take time and practice, but harnessing your brainwaves is so beneficial as to make it all worthwhile. Why does it require the support of a faith?
The Science Behind the Practice.
Researchers monitoring the brain scans of meditators have identified five different frequency ranges, some of which have the potential to overlap and can be sub-divided further. Let’s start with the most subtle.
The Infralow frequency. This is a constant background impulse of electrical energy within our neurons. Think of it as your car idling in neutral. You’re not travelling anywhere, but without it, the car cannot run. These are quiet, steady waves that tend to stay below 0.5Hertz.
Next, are the Delta waves at 0.5–3Hz. These are my favourites. They are slow, deep and penetrative frequencies which are common during dreamless sleep and intense meditation. It’s during these times that the brain flushes out all the waste chemicals from the tissues with cerebral spinal fluid. If these waste products from all our activities during the day are allowed to build up, then it reaches a state of toxicity that can harm tissue regeneration and new neuronal links being formed.
This is why sleep is so critical to good health. Think of it as a nightly oil change and tune-up. With meditation, this can be achieved during our wakeful hours too, increasing the time spent healing our grey matter.
The Theta waves are next on the scale. These fire in a similar way to delta having a frequency range of 3–8Hz. They too can be experienced during sleep and deep meditation, but with greater awareness of our bodies. This is almost like a trance state. We are receptive to learning, sensations, feelings, and intuition, but less aware of what’s happening in the outside world.
In normal wakeful situations, we experience this state for just a fleeting moment before we drift off to sleep. Our greatest exposure to theta waves is when we have vivid dreams. Our imaginations run riot, we process the day’s thoughts or relive our troubles and fears. In the car analogy, I suppose it’s like parking; switching between first gear and reverse through a series of manoeuvres until a memory has a place to rest.
Alpha waves are most abundant when you are sitting quietly and allowing thoughts to flow through your mind. They have a frequency of 8–12Hz. It’s the resting state of an awake brain. While still receptive to learning, it is with quiet contemplation; a sense of calm over your mind and body.
It’s a little like driving through the speed restrictions of a tiny village late at night. You know that it’s practically deserted, but you’re alert in case a dog runs out into the road.
Beta waves are next. With a frequency range of 12–38Hz, these waves are both fantastic in times of crisis and devastatingly stressful if you stay in this state for too long. This is the most dominant brainwave pattern of a busy day at work or school. It’s fast-moving and allows us to make split-second decisions, remaining active and highly attentive to focused tasks. This is the state necessary for problem-solving, hitting tight deadlines and high excitement.
The beta state can be sub-divided into lower, middle and upper levels, with the subtle differences between them blurring. Needless to say, this takes a huge amount of energy to sustain, which in turn generates greater quantities of metabolic waste chemicals in the tissues. If this state, particularly high beta, is maintained for prolonged sessions, it tips over from complex problem solving and intense engagement into anxiety and stress.
Think of this state as a London or New York cabbie, who has to monitor all the potential dangers of traffic congestion while navigating tricky routes all day long.
Gamma waves are the fastest and highest frequency of all brain activity. They are quiet and rapid and have the ability to synchronise information from all the different brain areas for processing at the same time. This one is still a bit of a mystery to many researchers since the frequency range of 38–42Hz is technically above that of neuronal firing. Thus far, scientists have no idea how the brain manages to achieve gamma wave frequencies and yet they have detected abundant emissions from the brains of advanced meditation practitioners.
It seems to be most prevalent when the subjects are experiencing feelings of universal love and altruism. Current theory suggests that when gamma rhythm is achieved, you are able to modulate perception and consciousness, the inference being that this is the ultimate state of expanded awareness.
I suppose in our driving analogy, we could liken it to when we’re hurtling down the fast lane of the motorway. Momentum and speed are reached but you are fully alert to lane changers and terrible drivers all around you, ready to act instinctively to danger.
Achieving Good Brain Health.
The trick to healthy brain states, like most things, is in attaining balance. Over arousal of certain brain regions, inducing a prolonged state of high beta waves is linked to anxiety disorders, hypervigilance, impulsive behaviour, sleep issues, depression, nerve pain, and aggression. In a similar manner, under arousal can also trigger anxiety, depression, ADHD and many other symptoms.
Instabilities of brain rhythms can also lead to a range of disorders from panic attacks and narcolepsy to tinnitus and sleep apnoea. Medical professionals tend to treat these imbalances with mood-altering drugs, but alternative therapies are not only more cost-effective and non-toxic but are equal in efficacy. Any change to a person’s perception will alter tissue chemistry and therefore help to regulate associated disorders.
Functional MRI scans of advanced meditation masters have shown conclusive evidence of conscious control over brain rhythms. Meditation balances all regions of the brain until the frequencies are harmonised. The more you practice, the longer you can keep your thoughts synchronised and in a heightened state of awareness. It also allows efficient use of neural pathways reducing the risks of burnout or toxic overload from metabolic waste build-up.
A High Beta Example.
Just think about the last time you faced an impossible deadline and you and your colleagues had to work late to solve an insurmountable problem. The consequences of failure were unthinkable. At first, the adrenalin surges, clearing your mind and placing you in a problem-solving and high functioning state. You and your team are flying, but after the twelfth hour of high beta state, panic sets in. What if your solutions won’t work? What if your ideas are rejected?
By the thirteenth hour, you convince yourself that the whole plan is flawed and you scrap it to start again, only now you are beyond exhausted and convinced you’ll lose your job. Sound familiar?
By building in time to rinse out your brain metabolites and allow it to quieten into a lower state through meditation, you give your grey cells time to recharge and re-establish harmony between brain regions. Perspective is regained, permitting you to build on your original ideas.
It’s simple common sense, yet we dismiss the need for essential brain maintenance as a weakness. No one expects an athlete to run a marathon against the clock every day of the week, yet that’s exactly what we expect from our brains.
Meditation is also ultimately adaptable, from conquering insomnia to treating addictions, anxiety, and depression. We have an organ that can self-regulate, create brand new connections and pathways, learn and retain skills and harmonise with others to recognise emotions and distress, yet we treat it worse than we do our hearts.
Everyone knows that diet and exercise are crucial. People spend thousands of pounds or dollars on personal trainers, dietitians and gym memberships to obtain a fit body, but neglect their own mental health.
If you are willing to commit to a gym, surely you can spare a few minutes per day to work on mental fitness and wellbeing? The science is overwhelming. Religion is not required to practice meditation, just a desire to control our own thoughts. Perhaps we too will gain the insight afforded to the gurus of gamma wave mastery and see where faith and science coexist in a blissful state.
Until then, I will continue to learn and practice mindful meditation in an attempt to achieve holistic wellbeing. I may even record my own guided tracks.
If you are feeling stressed right now and need a few minutes to clear your mind, why not listen to the short session recorded at the bottom of this post?