Does everyone benefit equally from the same meditation technique?
Andrew Fingelkurts and Alexander Finkelkurts
BM-Science, Brain and Mind Technologies Research Centre, Espoo, Finland
KalpaTaru, Kirkkonummi, Finland
This is an English version of an original article published in Finnish at: http://www.kalpataru.fi/eeg.html
The human processes of psychological and physiological adaptation to the increasing speed of life and information flow in today’s society are much slower than the corresponding dynamics of technological and industrial change. On a daily basis, we are confronted by change; then, more often than not, we are forced to realise that the behavioural and psychological strategies that were once appropriate may in fact now be highly disadvantageous. In these circumstances, novel responses to new situations must be developed, and old ones abandoned. Additionally, the amount of information created by humans continues to grow at an ever-increasing rate—leading to information overload and high stress, while the world becomes ever more technologised and interconnected. The lag between rapid technological change on the one hand, and slower psychophysiological adaptation by humans on the other, became especially noticeable during the first decade of the twenty-first century, following the sudden rise in rates of neuropsychiatric and psychosomatic disorders among people in industrialised countries. The more frequent incidences of technogenic catastrophes as a result of human error are another sign of such dis-adaptation.
At the same time, the human brain—having from birth a high functional potential, and containing an astronomical number of elements (each one known to have plenty of nonlinearities)—should have the requisite psychophysiological resources to allow the human organism to adapt to a broad spectrum of external conditions, as well as be able to cope with informational stress. A capacity to activate such resources would be one of the most productive paths to maintain a healthy lifestyle in the modern world. In this context, the meditation and yoga techniques of yogis and sages could be effective—as, throughout history, they have claimed humans have a higher potential to enhance balance, peace, and coordination.
Despite the numerous, scientifically proven and positive effects of meditation/yoga on the human organism—such as reduced stress, elevated mood, increased life expectancy of the mind and its cognitive functions, decreased blood pressure, improved functioning of the immune system—the precise neurophysiological mechanisms of these processes have not been well understood to date. Recently, however, neurophysiologists have started to uncover the brain processes that are directly related to the effects of meditation/yoga, and which can themselves be influenced, or modified, by meditation/yoga exercises.
At this point in time, we are about to find out how and why the brain is able to improve itself.
Many published papers have reported significant physiological changes in the brain during meditation/yoga, proving a causal link. Not all changes in brain activity can be interpreted in a positive way, however; indeed, some of these changes appear to be quite similar to those that are characteristic of some well-known pathological conditions. For example, the slowing of alpha waves and shift to theta waves, as well as decreased inhibition and hyperexcitability of cortical structures, are often found in some meditation/yoga practitioners. Now, cortical disinhibition and hyperexcitability are commonly associated with dysfunction of glutamate and GABA neurotransmission, which—together with the slowdown of electrical activity in the brain—is a known characteristic of many pathological conditions, including epilepsy, cognitive impairment, and Alzheimer’s disease. Nevertheless, meditation/yoga can have adverse health effects in some people, inducing physical and psychological problems ranging from muscle spasms, facial tics and insomnia, to hallucinations and psychotic breakdowns. The work of the late Margaret Singer and Janja Lalich, who collected case histories from 70 clients seeking treatment for problems that began during meditation practice, contains many such examples. These unexpected findings therefore raise concerns about the suitability of certain meditation/yoga techniques for particular individuals: hence, it would seem that not every meditation/yoga technique is suitable for everyone.
If this is so, then the next question to ask is how to ascertain which technique would be the most beneficial for each person? The answer may be that an objective assessment of brain functionality using electroencephalography (EEG) could be the most helpful, since it allows individuals who are most likely to exhibit positive alterations in psychophysiological functioning during meditation/yoga to be identified, thereby guaranteeing the most effective form of meditation as a therapeutic procedure.
Quantitative EEG (qEEG) is a technique used to digitally record electrical activity generated by the brain. This information is usually obtained using electrodes placed on the scalp with a conductive gel. There are millions of neurons in the brain, each of which generates small electrical fields; the aggregate of these electrical fields creates an electrical reading, which can be detected and recorded by electrodes on the scalp. This technique, which measures specific electrical activity in the cortex, is known to reflect the functional state of the brain—levels of cognitive engagement, cognitive processing, skill integration, recalling relevant information, and arousal regulation, to mention a few. In this sense qEEG is a natural window into the human brain: it gives objective results on how meditation affects the different functions in the brain of every individual. Based on numerous scientific studies in cognitive neuroscience, and advanced mathematical analysis of qEEG, it is now possible to quantify objectively mental aspects of performance, such as focus and attention, information-processing speed, stress regulation, emotions, and overall brain resources. (More detail on this can be found at http://eegmeditation.eu/en/the-brain-audit).
As these studies have shown, various meditative states (both those that involve focus on an object and those that are objectless), which are reached through practice of a particular meditation technique, are associated with different EEG spatiotemporal and oscillatory signatures. These signatures are directly related to the baseline neuropshychological profiles of practitioners. Clearly, therefore, if the EEG profile of an individual is known in advance, each person can then choose the most suitable meditation/yoga technique, and thus diminish the risk of negative effects.
In this context, individual EEG profiles allow for a better understanding by all concerned as to which cognitive skills are strong and which are weak—and hence provide a more reliable guide to selecting individualised training protocols that will, ultimately, allow the individual to unlock his or her brain’s full potential. Further information on EEG-guided meditation is available at http://eegmeditation.eu/en/