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The Brain Benefits of Meditation Depend on Which Type You Practice

Studies have undeniably proven that meditation changes your brain. No doubt about that.

Early research and all the media hype may have given you the impression that meditation and mindfulness are good for improving everything in everybody. While they can have brain and health benefits, the result you get depends on many factors. Meditation is not “one size fits all.” Different styles of meditation impact the brain differently.

The Science of Meditation  

The words “mediation” and “mindfulness” have become generic terms that are too broad when attempting to pinpoint specific benefits or brain changes. They are difficult subjects to study scientifically. While research methods are improving and becoming more precise, many of the early studies were of poor quality and produced conclusions showing everything from very positive changes to minimal improvement and even negative experiences.

The reason for differing results in studies could be due to multiple factors, such as:

  • the skill of the teacher in the study,
  • the severity of the mental health conditions of the study participants,
  • the time involved and length of the study, and
  • the exact practices utilized in the research.

Newer studies are more rigorous and are concluding that different practices can potentially yield different results. It would be best to study each separately. While more and better research is definitely needed, it is becoming obvious that a meditative style needs to match an individual’s goals.

4 Styles of Neuromeditation

There is no “wrong” style of meditation. Meditation is like exercise. Any form of exercise is beneficial and better than no exercise at all. However, yoga and weightlifting are going to give you very different results. Similarly, the meditation style you choose to practice needs to consider your desired outcomes, your personality and preferences, and your brain’s innate tendencies and functioning.

Jeff Tarrant, Ph.D., BCN, author of Meditation Interventions to Rewire the Brain and founder of the NeuroMeditation Institute, organizes practices into four categories depending on how a person’s attention is directed during the practice, brainwave activity, and mental health concerns. He calls applying such brain-based principles to meditative practice “neuromeditation.”

Focus Meditation

This type of meditative practice is often called “concentration” or “focused attention” in research and involves voluntary and sustained attention on a single object, such as the breath, a word or mantra, a part of your body, a visual image, or a candle flame. The goal is to recognize when your attention wanders from the object and return it as soon as possible without judgment.

This practice is associated with increased activation of the frontal lobes and helps you train your mind to improve a variety of cognitive functions, including sustaining attention, reducing mind wandering, and improving reaction time, and working memory. Studies on this type of meditative practice have found increased communication between the front and the back of the brain as well as increased gamma and beta activity.

This style is helpful for people wanting to improve ADHD, depression, memory, and cognitive decline. Meditation for clarity and focus is a foundation for all the other meditation styles, helping to stabilize the mind.

The Brain Benefits of Meditation Depend on Which Type You Practice

Mindfulness Meditation

You have, no doubt, heard of mindfulness. Tarrant refers to this style of meditation as “open-monitoring.” It involves an objective, nonjudgmental awareness of the present experience and teaches you to observe your present experience with awareness. This includes your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.

With mindfulness practice, you learn to distance yourself from and observe internal reactions, emotions, and feelings and intentionally bring your attention back to the present moment instead of getting lost or carried away by thoughts or feelings. Mindfulness asks you to practice accepting things — just as they are without grasping, clinging, or pushing away.

These practices are associated with a calming of specific regions of the brain involved in the stress response. The brain becomes more flexible, and habitual ways of perceiving yourself, others, and the environment eventually shift naturally over time. Mindfulness practices may be especially beneficial for managing stress, anxiety, and depression.

They have proven to be particularly useful in the treatment of anxiety. Research shows that mindfulness can increase theta brainwave activity which correlates with lower anxiety scores. Mindfulness can bring about increased frontal lobe theta activity which science has also associated with lower state and trait anxiety.

The Brain Benefits of Meditation Depend on Which Type You Practice

Quiet Mind Meditation

Tarrant describes this style as “automatic self-transcending.” Quiet mind practices involve actually going beyond the basic procedures of mediation practice which would be consistent with Transcendental Meditation (TM) or Zen. Most of the research regarding this type has been done with TM.

Quiet mind is a mantra-based meditation designed to create a sense of calm and quiet in the mind — which is what most people think all mediation is. Instead of focusing on the breath or doing a body scan, a person focuses on repeating a mantra, which can be a sound, a syllable, a word, or a group of words. Any time your mind gets distracted, you return to the mantra. It may seem like a focus meditation due to the attention being placed on the mantra. However, the goal is to transcend the mantra and go beyond sustained attention to a state of mental silence.

Research shows that this practice increases the power and communication of alpha1 brainwaves. An increase in alpha1 activity reduces external orientation and vigilance and essentially quiets the mind. Quiet mind protocols are beneficial for many mental health conditions and may prove ideal for issues related to a lack of cognitive flexibility where a person gets “stuck” on certain self-perceptions, such as eating disorders, OCD, and other personality disorders.

The Brain Benefits of Meditation Depend on Which Type You Practice

Open Heart Meditation

You may have heard this practice referred to as “loving-kindness” or “compassion” meditation. Open heart practices use words, images, and sentiments to evoke a feeling of unconditional, loving energy and friendliness toward oneself and others. Tarrant describes it as an “unrestricted readiness and availability to help all living beings.”

Open heart practices are sometimes considered a type of focus meditation and share some of the brainwave patterns. Research with this type saw a significant increase in gamma wave power and communication from the front to the back regions of the brain. Similar to focus practices, open heart meditations do involve the directing of attention and cognitive processes on one particular concept. However, they are distinct because the practitioner focuses on generating feelings of unconditional caring, compassion, kindness, and love. The intent is to adopt a “way of being” not focus on particular words or an object.

Open heart practices, with the emphasis on positive feelings and empathy towards ourselves and others, may be ideally suited to help treat depression, grief, and relationship issues.

The Brain Benefits of Meditation Depend on Which Type You Practice

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  1. Debbie,

    This is fascinating! I consider all four of these in the realm of mindfulness meditation, but I understand why they separated them out for research purposes and how they have different impacts. They all involve mindfulness, they can’t be done without being mindful, but they have different objects as their focus and naturally that could bring about different benefits.

    Thanks for sharing this information, Debbie.

    • I agree with you, Sandra. From my research and reading, meditation is one form of mindfulness – no matter what kind you do. As you said, for his research and categorization purposes, he divided them up based on brainwaves and results. I am not saying we need to go by this classification, I’m just saying this is how he did it according to the impacts on the brain.

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