Brain Research, Meditation and Regression
Meditation: What You Need To KnowWhat’s the Bottom Line?How much do we know about meditation?Many studies have been conducted to look at how meditation may be helpful for a variety of conditions, such as high blood pressure, certain psychological disorders, and pain. A number of studies also have helped researchers learn how meditation might work and how it affects the brain.What do we know about the effectiveness of meditation?Research suggests that practicing meditation may reduce blood pressure, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety and depression, insomnia, and the incidence, duration, and severity of acute respiratory illnesses (such as influenza). Evidence about its effectiveness for pain and as a smoking-cessation treatment is uncertain.What do we know about the safety of meditation?Meditation is generally considered to be safe for healthy people. However, people with physical limitations may not be able to participate in certain meditative practices involving movement.
What the Science Says About the Effectiveness of Meditation
Many studies have investigated meditation for different conditions, and there’s evidence that it may reduce blood pressure as well as symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and flare-ups in people who have had ulcerative colitis. It may ease symptoms of anxiety and depression, and may help people with insomnia. Meditation also may lower the incidence, duration, and severity of acute respiratory illnesses (such as
Meditation has been studied for many conditions including the following:
High Blood Pressure
Results of a 2009 NCCAM-funded trial involving 298 university students suggest that practicing Transcendental Meditation may lower the blood pressure of people at increased risk of developing high blood pressure. · The findings also suggested that practicing meditation can help with psychological distress, anxiety, depression, anger/hostility, and coping ability. · A literature review and scientific statement from the American Heart Association suggest that evidence supports the use of Transcendental Meditation (TM) to lower blood pressure. However, the review indicates that it’s uncertain whether TM is truly superior to other meditation techniques in terms of blood-pressure lowering because there are few head-to- head studies.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
· Results of a 2011 NCCAM-funded clinical trial that enrolled 75 women suggest that practicing mindfulness meditation for 8 weeks reduces the severity of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms. · A 2013 review concluded that mindfulness training improved IBS patients’ pain and quality of life but not their depression or anxiety. The amount of improvement was small.
· In a 2014 pilot study, 55 adults with ulcerative colitis in remission were divided into two groups. For 8 weeks, one group learned and practiced mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) while the other group practiced a placebo procedure. Six and 12 months later, there were no significant differences between the 2 groups in the course of the disease, markers of inflammation, or any psychological measure except perceived stress during flare-ups. The researchers concluded that MBSR might help people in remission from moderate to moderately severe disease—and maybe reduce rates of flare-up from stress.
Anxiety, Depression, and Insomnia
· A 2014 literature review of 47 trials in 3,515 participants suggests that mindfulness meditation programs show moderate evidence of improving anxiety and depression. But the researchers found no evidence that meditation changed health-related behaviors affected by stress, such as substance abuse and sleep. · A 2012 systematic review and meta-analysis of 36 randomized controlled trials found that 25 of them reported statistically superior outcomes for symptoms of anxiety in the meditation groups compared to control groups. · In a small, NCCAM-funded study, 54 adults with chronic insomnia learned mindfulness- based stress reduction (MBSR), a form of MBSR specially adapted to deal with insomnia (mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia, or MBTI), or a self-monitoring program. Both meditation-based programs aided sleep, with MBTI providing a significantly greater reduction in insomnia severity compared with MBSR.
· Findings from a 2013 systematic review suggest that meditation-based therapies may help people quit smoking; however, the small number of available studies is insufficient to determine rigorously if meditation is effective for this. · A 2011 randomized controlled trial comparing mindfulness training with a standard behavioral smoking cessation treatment found that individuals who received mindfulness training showed a greater rate of reduction in cigarette use immediately after treatment and at 17-week followup. · Results of a 2013 brain imaging study suggest that mindful attention reduced the craving to smoke, and also that it reduced activity in a craving-related region of the brain. · However, in a second 2013 brain imaging study, researchers observed that a 2-week course of meditation (5 hours total) significantly reduced smoking, compared with relaxation training, and that it increased activity in brain areas associated with craving.
· Results from a 2011 NCCAM-funded study of 279 adults who participated in an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program found that changes in spirituality were associated with better mental health and quality of life. · Data from a 2013 literature review concluded that practicing mindfulness meditation may enhance immune function, particularly among patients with cancer or HIV/AIDS. · Guidelines from the American College of Chest Physicians published in 2013 suggest that MBSR and meditation may help to reduce stress, anxiety, pain, and depression while enhancing mood and self-esteem in people with lung cancer. · Clinical practice guidelines issued in 2014 by the Society for Integrative Oncology (SIC) recommend meditation as supportive care to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue in patients treated for breast cancer. The SIC also recommends its use to improve quality of life in these people.
· Meditation-based programs may be helpful in reducing common menopausal symptoms, including the frequency and intensity of hot flashes, sleep and mood disturbances, stress, and muscle and joint pain. However, differences in study designs mean that no firm conclusions can be drawn. · Because only a few studies have been conducted on the effects of meditation for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), there isn’t sufficient evidence to support its use for this condition. · A 2014 literature review and meta-analysis suggested that mind and body practices, including meditation, reduce chemical identifiers of inflammation and show promise in helping to regulate the immune system. · Results from a 2013 NCCAM-supported study involving 49 adults suggest that 8 weeks of mindfulness training may reduce stress-induced inflammation better than a health program that includes physical activity, education about diet, and music therapy. · There’s some evidence that forms of meditation may help with chronic pain, but research has shown mixed results.
Meditation and the Brain
Some research suggests that meditation may physically change the brain and body and could potentially help to improve many health problems and promote healthy behaviors. · In a 2012 study, researchers compared brain images from 50 adult meditators and 50 adult non-meditators. Results suggested that people who practiced meditation for many years have more folds in the outer layer of the brain. This process (called gyrification) may increase the brain’s ability to process information. · A 2013 review of three clinical studies suggests that meditation may slow, stall, or even reverse changes that take place in the brain due to normal aging. · Results from a 2012 NCCAM-funded study suggest that meditation can affect activity in the amygdala (a part of the brain involved in processing emotions), and that different types of meditation can affect the amygdala differently even when the person is not meditating. · Research about meditation’s ability to reduce pain has produced mixed results. However, in some studies scientists suggest that meditation activates certain areas of the brain in response to pain. ( U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine)
We Shall discuss the research into the neurological correlates of meditation practices. There seem to be two general types of meditation, each with its own neurological signature. These are compared to regression therapy, which is hypothesized to be a third type.
During meditation brain activity changes: in frequency, in location, in coherence. Meditation practices of the concentration-type eliminate all mental content, emptying the mind of everything besides the concentrating mind itself. Meditation practices of the Heartfulness-type stay with the actual moment and all that entails, inside and outside. These practices focus on or contemplate what is present, while being as calm and complete as possible.
Regression seems a third road, though the results may be comparable. Meditation is attentiveness training. In regression we don’t train attentiveness; we induce a natural flow of awareness from experiencing a problem, discovering its source, and flowing towards its solution. Regression seems more comparable to absorption of the attention experienced in reading or hearing stories, listening to music, or after hypnotic inductions.
Meditation can be therapeutic, especially for depression. The meditator learns to see negative thoughts as observable mental contents rather than the self. This is also true for regression, though we rarely consider it in this way. Only when a regression leads to catharsis does the similarity with meditation become striking. A deep catharsis approaches the mystical qualities of deep meditative states.
Further neurological research won’t improve that process, though we may discover what neurological conditions may hinder or limit regression experiences and their therapeutic results.
Some time ago, I came across an article that reviewed 50 years of neurological research on meditation and similar states. I devoured it. What did I learn? Quite a lot, and not so much. What does brain research of meditative states teach us? Quite a lot about what is happening inside the brain. Not so much about meditative states, though it may give some pointers as to what may happen in the brain during regression.
The summarized research gives an idea of what is happening in the brain during meditation and what is typical for the brain of experienced meditators, even when they are not meditating. Different kinds of meditation have been compared: Yoga, Vipassana, TM, Qigong, guided meditation, Zen, Christian prayer, hypnosis, alpha-training. Qigong has meditators sense the Qi or subtleenergy in the body and manipulate it by will, physical postures, and movements. Ananda Marga meditation concentrates on the breath, followed by mantra meditation.
I am not sure why all these research has been done. Maybe to explain meditative experiences by what is happening in the brain. But nowhere have meditative states been produced by changing something in the brain. And, yes, all of these brain states have been changed by meditation. It is like explaining the behavior of cars by what is happening inside the car and considering the people driving them as concepts rather than reality. Anyway, what do we know now about meditation that we didn’t know before all this research?
Different forms of meditation engage different neural structures. Two different types of meditation produce two different types of brain states. And that also gives us a framework for comparing meditation and regression experiences. Following Cahn and Polich, meditation is classified into two types: concentration and mindfulness. Yoga is at one end of the spectrum: more concentration, removed from sensory experience. Zen is at the other end: more mindfulness, including sensory experience.
Transcendental Meditation is in between. Neurological effects of meditation Brain activity is measured by recording its electrical activity, by brain wave frequencies (from fast to slow: gamma, beta, alpha, theta and delta), by magnetic resonance, by blood flow, and by glucose consumption. Usually, the brain activity is measured in different areas: front and rear; left, middle, and right; cortex and deeper brain levels. No general difference in hemispheric functioning has been found during meditation. Appetitive and approach-oriented emotions are characterized by a left-over-right prefrontal activity; avoidance and withdrawal by right-over-left prefrontal dominance. Left dominates in happier states and traits; frontal left or right dominance is related to approach; frontal right dominance is related to withdrawal.
During meditation, alpha and theta waves become coherent within and between the brain halves. Alpha coherence increases during episodes of thoughtless awareness or transcendental experiences. Experienced meditators show more theta and alpha, both in and out of meditation, compared with novices and with people who never meditated. The more experienced the meditators, the stronger the effects. Alpha increases when the blood flow in the cortex decreases. Sensory stimulation and focusing attention decrease alpha. In meditators at rest, alpha is stronger compared with controls at rest. In early biofeedback studies more alpha correlated with less anxiety and feeling calm and positive. Increased alpha could be correlated with relaxation and with choosing to meditate, but not all meditation studies show an alpha effect.
Meditation affects the distribution within alpha: slower and with more power. In the long run, meditation may lead to increased theta rather than increased alpha. In comparison, concentration produces more theta, while the more passive form of meditation does not. With novice meditators, global theta was higher during resting than during meditation, implicating drowsiness as the source of their theta. Physiologically, meditation seems a twilight condition between being awake and being asleep. However, drowsiness decreases coherence, while meditation increases coherence. Cerebral blood flow increases during meditation, and decreases in sleep.
Accomplished meditators who report awareness throughout sleep had more fast theta and slow alpha during deep sleep. Long-term meditators not reporting awareness throughout the sleep cycle also exhibited more theta and alpha during deep sleep, but of less amplitude. Long-term meditators had slower mean frequency and greater theta–alpha at rest, widespread increases in theta and early alpha, and more coherent theta. Theta increases in the bliss state and decreases when thinking.
Meditation focused on relaxation increases theta all over. EEG meditation studies reveal an overall frequency slowing and stronger theta and alpha when in the meditative state. Findings of increased power coherence and gamma band effects with meditation are emerging. Dopamine release increases 65% during meditation. That may explain its selfreinforcing nature once proficiency is attained.
Psychological effects of meditation
Meditation lowers anxiety, develops more emotional stability, innerdirectedness, higher moral reasoning and transcendental awareness. The primary domain affected by meditation is attention. Meditation can be considered attention training. Meditators focus better, and more experienced meditators focus better than less experienced ones. Studies of breath-focused meditation with children and adults show improvements in ignoring distractions.
Fifty-one-year-old Narendra Kumar Arya, an alumnus of IIT-Kharagpur and at present, a scientist with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), is the first PhD holder in yogic sciences from IIT-Delhi.
As an external candidate, Arya’s study focused on “heartfulness meditation, which may improve well-being and health.” He said his work was in the area of psycho-physiology, psychology and connected one to the source of happiness “ananda”.
The scientist submitted his thesis, which was awarded in November 2018, has found in his study that heartfulness meditation-based programmes have a significant impact on one’s well-being. Heartfulness and other forms of meditation, such as Vipassana, can play a significant role in enhancing the well-being of people, while inculcating values at the same time.
He told , “This research has elements of past. Like in the eastern world, we have the concept of ‘ananda,’ through heartfulness meditation we connect to that source of happiness. It is the opposite of pressure and anxiety. We hear of mindfulness, but with this, I have brought the aspect of heartfulness meditation.”
His thesis comprised three sub-studies. The first study, published in International Journal of Research in management and social science in 2017, was conducted at CREST-Bengaluru.
The findings showed a significant improvement in mental health, positive experiences and ‘sat-chit-ananda’ (the subjective experience of existence, consciousness and bliss) of the participants, Arya said.
The second study, published in the International Journal of Indian Psychology in 2017, was carried out at the Himalayan Ashram of Sahaj Marg, Haldwani.
Here, it was found that the ashram’s meditation programme has a positive impact on mental health and its dimensions such as emotional and social well-being, positive experience, ‘sat-chit-ananda’, while it was negatively associated with depression, anxiety and stress.
The third study, published in the Indian Heart Journal in 2018, examined the impact of heartfulness cleaning and meditation on heart rate variability of participants.
It was carried out in collaboration with Dr Rahul Mehrotra, head of non-invasive cardiology laboratory at Max Super Specialty Hospital in Saket, New Delhi.
This study revealed how the concept has a positive effect on sympathovagal balance (reflecting the autonomic state resulting from sympathetic and parasympathetic influences).
Arya said, “These studies open new avenues for scientific inquiry on meditation and related practices in our culture. There are a number of spiritual practices prevalent within India, and empirical studies, such as the ones mentioned above, can help ascertain the impact of these practices on our physical, as well as, mental health.”
“I pursued the path of research in effect of meditation-based programmes to combine the good effects of spirituality with science and develop disciplines like spirituality-backed management and forever happiness,” he added.
These were conducted under the guidance of professors Kamlesh Singh and Anushree Malik at the National Resource Centre for Value Education in Engineering, IIT-Delhi. The centre actively pursues the agenda of value education in engineering across the nation.
It considers spirituality, meditation and related practices as one of the ways of inculcating values among engineers and improving well-being at the same time.
Prof Rahul Garg of IIT-Delhi, who is currently heading the centre, said, “We have also started a Ph.D in yogic sciences with the objective of taking the ancient Indian wisdom and combining it with the best scientific methods to create a platform where it may be viewed with a modern scientific temperament.”
Research suggests a neural correlate for the altered sense of space in meditation. Several investigations have found brain activity typical for weaker self, non-self-boundaries. Mystical experiences resemble psychiatric depersonalization, ecstasy, and drug-induced hallucination. Emotional and volitional detachment is common throughout meditation. Meditative and religious traditions include calm peacefulness, less internal dialogue, perceptual clarity and awareness merging with the object of meditation.
Meditators observe thoughts and feelings instead of identifying with them and may have mystical experiences of blissful absorption into the current moment, named samadhi, nirvana, or oneness. Some meditators consistently report feelings of love during meditation, although these experiences are often not the goal. In that state, some meditators showed greater frontal gamma than alpha. Also found was a significant increase in gamma coherence. For effective meditations, gamma may play a prominent role.
Clinical effects of meditation
People exhibiting more theta, especially more frontal theta, experience less anxiety. This may be associated with feelings of peace or bliss and low thought content that have been correlated with bursts of theta. Hypnotic states also exhibit frontal midline theta, just as self-regulation by biofeedback does. Long-term meditation leads to deep calm, increased comfort, heightened perception, and a different relationship to thoughts, feelings, and experience of self. States of awareness referred to as ‘the witness’ or ‘transcendental experience’ are also claimed to ensue. This contentless awareness independent of mental activities can be present during deep sleep. The sense of self shifts from a self-awareness centered in the body to an impersonal beingness with less separation between the observer and the observed. Meditation increases well-being and lessens anxiety and stress.
A different light on regression therapy
A number of the concomitants of effective meditative states are encountered in regression at the time of catharsis. In research into brainwave patterns during regression, the simultaneous appearance of beta and delta waves resembles somewhat the incidence of both lower theta and of gamma frequencies during meditation. And a deep catharsis approaches the almost mystical qualities of deep meditative states.
The way we regressionists try to reach catharsis is almost the opposite of what meditators do: we enhance the negative mind state of the client and use that as a direct way to discover the origins of that negative mind state. Paradoxically, welcoming the problem, evoking it, has at the same time an associative and a dissociative aspect. It becomes something within us that we can handle. The handler and the handled become two. The contents of a regression session also become observable mental contents rather than the self, no matter how intense they are experienced.
Also, paradoxically, while we are enlarging the self our more inner self becomes the subject, and the problematic self becomes the object. When we allow our emotions, our bodily sensations, or thoughts to appear, they appear as actors and acts in the ring of our inner circus, while we are—however engrossed—the spectator. The fact that we work with subpersonalities and ego-states, strengthens the center instead of confusing and blinding it. That is, with the exception of psychotic and borderline people—which is why we rarely work with them, at least not straightaway.
The regression experience seems a third road in addition to concentration and mindfulness. It is not about exorcising the troubling and confusing contents in our mind; it is not about calming them, but about unshackling them and giving them full space in the ring. We dissolve chaos by setting it free and letting it run its natural course.
Neurologists will be interested in finding out what’s going on in the brain during an effective regression. Júlio Peres from Brazil studied patients who had regression experiences during a MRI-scan. It will shed new light on what is happening in such moments in the body. It won’t shed light on the regression process itself, though we may discover what physiological conditions may hinder regression experiences and their therapeutic results.
The limited brain research that has been done into regression experiences has focused on the possibility of regression experiences being like reliving known memories and not like engaging in fantasies. It might be more interesting to find out what happens during reliving traumatic events and during catharsis and healing. Of course, such processes will be hindered by measuring equipment and research conditions. Nonetheless, similarities and differences with meditative states may be enlightening.
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