Matters of the Mind: A Look into the Psychology of Meditation

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This is a guest post by Psychology student Brittany Miller from Rose Tinted Glass.

You’ve heard the popular mantra, you’ve seen the forms and know the behavior. It’s even prominent in the popular movie series Star Wars. Meditation is a mental discipline in which one “thinks” his or her way to a deep, relaxed state of awareness. How do we generate inner-peace through use of our own mind? Every day, your mind processes a barrage of emotions, visual images, memories, and more. Overcoming that internal chatter is hard, but when you meditate, you teach your mind to narrow its concentration to one thing, limiting the stimulation to your nervous system.

There are many ways to meditate, but they all strive for the same goal: Relaxation.

Since mediation is a mental discipline, one has to wonder: what exactly changes in the brain of a long-time meditator? Psychology is the study of mental processes and behavior, and by applying a psychological perspective, I want to find out why meditation works so well as a simple stress reducer.

Physiological Psychology: What changes in the brain?

This subdivision of psychology studies the mechanisms of the brain and their relation to one’s behaviors and perception. I’ve done some research and listed a few important findings on what meditation accomplishes within the brain of a meditator.

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Though your mind is focused, some activities inside your brain go unchecked. In EEG (electroencephalograph) studies, brainwaves of different frequencies are measured, and many found an increase in these following brainwaves:

  • Alpha Waves: Healthy alpha wave production supports mental resourcefulness, better mental coordination, and improves the general sense of relaxation and weariness. Many believe alpha waves are the bridges between consciousness and unconsciousness. Meditation synchronizes alpha activity between the four regions of the brain: left, right, anterior, and posterior, which positively correlates with creativity.
  • Theta Waves: Theta waves come in strong bursts in long-term meditators who report a peaceful, drifting, and pleasant experience at the time. These waves enhance creativity, intuition, and daydreaming. It is also a storage area for memories, emotions, and sensations. Theta waves are strong during any sort of spiritual focus and they reflect the state between wakefulness and sleep.
  • Beta Waves: When the EEG shows bursts of Beta waves, experienced meditators report an approach of yogic ecstasy or a state of intense concentration sometimes accompanied by an acceleration of heart rate. Beta waves can increase mental ability, focus, and alertness.

Meditation in Relation to Brain Hemispheres

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Meditation seems to give us slight control of specific brain functions as well. We have two hemispheres to our brain each with different predominant functions: left (language/math/logic) and right (spatial abilities/face recognition/visual imagery/music).

Some studies show control of brain functions the importance of the right hemisphere during meditation:

  • Bennett and Trinder (1977) reported that transcendental meditators could shift brain activity
  • Davidson (1976) reported that, during mystical experience, the right hemisphere dominates cerebral function.

One study concluded that meditation might begin with activity in the left hemisphere, which then gives way to functioning characteristics of the right hemisphere. Another study suggests that meditation may inhibit the left hemisphere, shifting the focus of consciousness to the right hemisphere.

In conclusion, the right hemisphere (being synthetic and holistic) seems to be dominant in meditation. Both left and right hemisphere activities are slightly repressed in advanced meditation, however. These findings are evidence that meditation does indeed narrow focus in the brain and can even transcend a meditator to an even clearer mind by repressing both hemispheres.

“Self-awareness is the path to self-mastery; self-mastery is the way to happiness.”
-Unknown

Meditation vs. Frustration

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The best way to notice the benefits of meditation is to take a close look at the behaviors and health of meditators versus non-meditators. A study by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School recorded the brain waves of stressed-out employees working in a high-tech firm in Wisconsin. The subjects were divided into two groups: 25 subjects were asked to learn meditation over eight weeks and the remaining 16 were left as a control group.
All participants had their brain waves scanned three times during the study: once at the beginning, once after eight weeks when the 25 subjects completed their meditation course, and once four months afterward.

The results?

The meditation group showed a shift in activity to the left frontal lobe. People with more activity in the left frontal cortex than in the right tend to have a cheerful temperament. These people tend to have a more positive disposition and are more willing to interact with people and be content with their lives.

Those with more activity in the right frontal area of the brain hesitate during encounters with people or situations and stress out over the smallest of situations.

Those who meditate and are happy are healthier on all levels and their brains are free to process information and solve problems more creatively. Meditation clears out the insignificant junk in your mind and boosts its performance.

There are many other effects of meditation from which a stressed out high-tech firm employee would benefit:

  • Regulates heart rate, breathing, cholesterol, and blood pressure
  • Increases creativity
  • Reduces tension, anxiety, and stress
  • Less activity in the amygdala where the brain processes fear
  • Clears state of mind and makes it easier to kick addictions and self-defeating behaviors
  • Greater intimacy with friends and family members
  • Over-all positive emotions and state of mind
  • Increases power of awareness by developing concentration on a particular object
  • Investigate your inner self and question and contemplate the nature of existence itself

Go out and explore for yourself!

These are just a few aspects in which meditation can shape your life, but there are so much more. The mind is a powerful tool and mechanism with thousands of undiscovered talents and processes. Feel free to explore the inner workings of your mind, strive towards improving it for the better, and treat it well. Meditating gives your mind a healthy refreshing, just what it needs to keep you and your outlook healthy and positive.

5 thoughts on “Matters of the Mind: A Look into the Psychology of Meditation

  1. <>>

    The article is good in many ways but there are some things we should be clear about. The sentence above is quoted from the article. The author clearly does not understand “meditation”-which is not something anyone can even do-and has come to a rather flawed conclusion.
    Meditation is a state that can be induced through dedicated periods of concentration practice and doing what we can to maintain mindfulness during our waking hours. This involves withdrawing our attention from those things to which it flows in a distracted state and thus being more attentive to what arises in one’s own being.
    Frankly, there is a lot of confusion about this here in the west. Most of what people refer to as meditation is in fact a narrowing of focus to one thing,i,e: concentration practice. That, and and employing mindfulness at all other times of the day is all we can do .
    The miracle of meditation comes about as a result of knowing WHAT to focus on. When we focus on the right thing, the left and right brain are not”repressed”. Their functions are simply irrelevant at that time.
    What is the right thing?. Consciousness itself. That is a subtle skill and takes a bit of work before it can even be done effectively, but practice is the key.

    While the state of meditation is best discussed by those with a subjective experience of the state itself, all real discussion is problematic. Meditation is a state of being wherein the mind’s true nature is witnessed, but its not a state that lends itself to language.

    Robert

  2. Well Robert my friend, I guess we are going to have to agree to disagree again.

    I don’t believe meditation is a “state” as you say. It is an action. The Tibetan word “gom”, which means “to familiarize”, supports this. As such I believe that anyone can do it, contrary to what you believe.

    Please be careful about making decisive comments such as “the author clearly does not understand meditation” – obviously the two of you have different ideas about what meditation is.

    Thanks for stopping by again Robert.

    TDM

  3. Dear TDM and Brittany Miller,

    This is a great topic and there are so many different aspects of it that could be the subject of entire posts in their own right!

    From the perspective of a Buddhist Meditation practitioner, I’m quite curious about this line though: “There are many ways to meditate, but they all strive for the same goal: Relaxation.”

    1. Many forms of Buddhist meditation are a practice and do not aim to achieve any goal as such. (Or certainly not a ‘material’ goal such as relaxation.) If there was a goal then once it was achieved meditation would no longer be needed or practised…

    2.In as much as a Buddhist meditation practice might have a purpose or direction, it is not relaxation in any Buddhist teachings I am aware of, or certainly not as an end in itself. If relaxation results from the practice that might be a pleasant side effect but it isn’t a goal of the practice. (Some instructions actually suggest that you should be *relaxed first* before you can even begin meditation!!)

    So perhaps, what is referred to as meditation in this post is more about use of meditation techniques for therapeutic purposes? (And narrowing the mind to a single point of concentration is *one* such technique that may be used.) This is certainly something that is fairly common in the UK / US etc. and no doubt is of huge benefit to many people. Perhaps more formalised in recent times with such methods as MBCT arising out of the work of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn mentioned.

    Never the less I agree that the benefits listed can and do result from practising meditation or meditative techniques. In terms of other studies, there are a number of articles about the effects of Chan (Zen) Meditation on the Dharma Drum Mountain website of Chan Master Shengyen that you may find of interest. (See also further links on right-hand side bar.)

    Best wishes, Puerhan
    PS & best wishes for {rose tinted glass} developing well too

  4. Hi Puerhan. Again, great comment!

    I am inclined to agree with you on this one – I do not feel that the main goal of meditation is relaxation. But, this is largely due to my training as a Buddhist where mediation is about developing compassion, awareness, stabilization and insight into the nature of mind.

    However, the masters and texts are constantly telling us (in one form or another) to relax! Saraha, Padmasambhava, Tilopa, Naropa, Shakyamuni – all their poems, teachings and songs are telling us to relax and then we will be closer to the nature of mind. So maybe relaxation isn’t such a bad word?

    I do disagree with you however about the “goal”. I think Buddhist meditations certainly do have a goal. For example, Shamatha’s goal is to achieve single pointed concentration, tong-len’s goal is to achieve compassion. Ultimately, all meditations are designed for the goal of enlightenment, after which meditation is not needed.

    Thanks again Puerhan.

    TDM

  5. Dear TDM,

    Yes of course you are right, relaxation is important – deep relaxation of our being in fact not just feeling more chilled out! 🙂 I guess part of my point was that if you seriously train in meditation / practice meditation it is unrealistic to expect to feel more relaxed in the conventional sense of the word.

    I see your point about goals and in part this highlights my particular training in Chan (Zen) Buddhism rather than any other traditions. (Where the emphasis is distinctly away from goals due perhaps in part to the relationship between goals and attachments!) Perhaps it is semantic pedantry on my part but I would generally consider what you describe as intentions / directions / purposes rather than goals. (i.e. meditation does not lead to them and stop.) I guess in Tibetan traditions (from what I have read) there are also more meditation techniques that are seen as specific training methods / regimes with clear outcomes, although I would still argue that ultimately none of them are the ‘goal’ of meditation in the conventional sense.

    In terms of your last statement, I personally have not heard of any master that upon enlightenment has stopped meditation practice… from Shakyamuni onwards… perhaps you have? After all meditation is also the embodiment of enlightenment.

    All the best, Puerhan

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