Linda Egenes: What is the main difference between the Transcendental Meditation technique and other meditation techniques, as shown by scientific research?
Dr. Orme-Johnson: Different meditation techniques follow different procedures and have different outcomes, and these effects can be measured. In a paper published in Consciousness and Cognition in 2010, Dr. Fred Travis and Dr. Jonathan Shear reviewed the research on the various meditation techniques and organized them into three categories: Focused Attention, Open Monitoring, and Automatic Self-Transcending.
Linda Egenes: Let’s begin with Focused Attention. What is the procedure for practicing this type of meditation, and what is its purpose?
Dr. Orme-Johnson: Focused Attention typically directs the meditator to concentrate on a single thing and to disallow the mind from wandering from it. The focus could be anything: a candle flame or the in-and-out cycle of breathing. The idea is to train your mind to hold its focus on one thing, even though it wants to jump around like a monkey. The goal of this practice is “to gain the ability to center the mind in the present moment.”
Brain imaging has identified the various brain areas associated with mind wandering, awareness of distraction, reorienting awareness, and sustained focus. Studies cited in the November 2014 issue of Scientific American suggest that practicing Focused Attention can improve the ability to focus.
Linda Egenes: What about the second category, Open Monitoring?
Dr. Orme-Johnson: During Open Monitoring, a person observes their thoughts and experiences appearing and disappearing and tries to maintain a nonjudgmental attitude towards them. The purpose of Open Monitoring is to develop an emotionally nonreactive response to thoughts and sensations that stream through your mind. By practicing nonjudgmental observation during meditation, the hope is that even outside of meditation, you will be able to catch yourself, to control your spontaneous, emotional reaction.
Neuroimaging studies suggest that Open Monitoring diminishes activity in areas of the brain involved in anxiety. Open Monitoring has been shown to help people deal with symptoms of depression and anxiety and improve sleep patterns, and it is being tested for its ability to help war vets with PTSD.
The term “Mindfulness” is another word for Open Monitoring. However, Mindfulness is also used more broadly to refer to programs involving several techniques, including Focused Attention, Open Monitoring, and Compassion meditations.
“In the fight-or-flight reflex, your heart rate goes up, your respiration rate goes up, major stress hormones, such as cortisol, increase. Research shows that TM has the opposite effect.” —David Orme-Johnson, Ph.D.
Linda Egenes: And the third category, Automatic Self-Transcending, would include the Transcendental Meditation technique.
Dr. Orme-Johnson: Yes, TM is the primary example of Automatic Self-Transcending. The TM technique allows your mind to easily and effortlessly settle inward, through quieter levels of thought, until you experience the most silent and peaceful level of your own awareness—pure consciousness.
The purpose of Automatic Self-Transcending is to enliven a state of consciousness that has beneficial effects for the mind and body. Research shows that when you transcend, when you go to quieter and quieter levels of your mind, the level of biochemical and physiological stress decreases.
Essentially, TM creates the opposite effect of the stress response, the classic fight-or-flight response. In the fight-or-flight reflex, your heart rate goes up, your respiration rate goes up, major stress hormones, such as cortisol, increase. Research shows that TM has the opposite effect: heart rate decreases, respiratory rate decreases, levels of cortisol decrease, and so forth.
Linda Egenes: What about brainwave activity in these three categories of techniques. Has that been studied?
Dr. Orme-Johnson: One of the ways to measure the differences between meditation techniques is to look at the electrical activity in someone’s brain at the time they are meditating. The electrical activity of millions of neurons in the brain create brainwaves, called the electroencephalogram or “EEG” for short. These waves rise and fall at different frequencies, depending on our state of consciousness and what we are doing.
For example, during deep sleep, the EEG has a slow frequency, rising and falling only once every second. In Travis and Shear’s review of current research we can see that the three different meditation procedures produced three distinctly different EEG frequencies.
In Focused Attention meditation the EEG is fast, rising and falling 20 to 30 times a second, which is called beta EEG, or even faster at 30 to 50 times per second, which is called gamma EEG. High frequency (think of a high-pitched tone) is not a restful or calm state, but an active state, and is commonly seen in someone concentrating in a highly focused manner.
Open Monitoring is characterized by a slower EEG, oscillating 5 to 8 times a second, called theta. Theta EEG occurs when someone is inwardly preoccupied, such as while reading a novel or solving a mathematical problem, and is no longer aware of the noises or people around them. The thalamus is the central switching area for incoming sensory information, and theta is associated with the thalamus reducing awareness of incoming information.
Linda Egenes: What about research on brainwave activity during TM?
Dr. Orme-Johnson: During Automatic Self-Transcending, as in the Transcendental Meditation technique, you see a middle frequency EEG, 7 to 9 cycles per second, called alpha1, which is characteristic of reduced mental activity and relaxation.
Frontal alpha-wave activity was first discovered by Keith Wallace, Ph.D., and published in Science magazine in 1970. Many subsequent studies have found that frontal alpha-wave activity becomes very coherent or orderly during the TM technique.
For instance, a meta-analysis published in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin in 2006 reviewed the EEG research on different types of meditation and cited seven studies showing that alpha EEG coherence increases between the left and right sides of the front of the brain during TM practice, and continues spreading until the whole brain becomes synchronized and coherent.
“The TM technique allows your mind to easily and effortlessly settle inward, through quieter levels of thought, until you experience the most silent and peaceful level of your own awareness—pure consciousness.” —David Orme-Johnson, Ph.D.
Linda Egenes: What is the significance of these EEG patterns?
Dr. Orme-Johnson: It is known that EEG, and particularly alpha coherence (orderliness) organizes the functioning of the brain for memory, creativity, perception, motor behavior—just about everything.
Coherent alpha waves function something like a conductor in an orchestra. When the conductor waves his baton, it provides the timing that organizes all the different components of the orchestra to work together to create a symphony—analogous to the harmonious brain functioning that is created by the coherent frontal alpha waves spreading throughout the brain during TM.
This ability to create more coherent, orderly brain functioning is unique among meditation practices. That’s the real value of the Transcendental Meditation technique: an experience that transforms the way we function, even after meditation.
Linda Egenes: How do brainwaves change when you experience deep transcendence during TM?
Dr. Orme-Johnson: It’s known that when a person is having the experience of pure consciousness, beyond thought, the breath stops for a while, from 10 to 40 seconds. How do we know this? Since the 1970s we’ve asked subjects in experiments to push a button immediately after they have had this experience of pure, silent, unbounded awareness and are thinking thoughts again.
We found that during the periods of respiratory suspension during the TM technique, which correlates with the person’s experience of transcending, the whole brain becomes coherent. The EEG frequencies in all the different areas of the brain synchronize with each other.
Even more significantly, the coherence occurs across all frequencies—alpha, beta, gamma, theta—so it’s broadband coherence. In other words, transcending creates a state of total brain coherence. And this sets a baseline for the brain to be able to integrate.
Having an integrated brain, where the different parts of the brain—and therefore different parts of the body—are in harmonious communication with each other, is perhaps the reason why the TM technique has such powerful healing effects.
Linda Egenes: What are some of those healing effects of TM?
Dr. Orme-Johnson: Systematic reviews and meta-analyses have shown that the reductions of blood pressure in TM practitioners not only can result in reduced use of anti-hypertension drugs; regular TM practice also results in reduced heart attacks and strokes. This has been demonstrated in a comprehensive 10-year study that found 48 percent fewer heart attacks, strokes, and deaths in heart patients who practiced the Transcendental Meditation technique.
In fact, an American Heart Association (AHA) committee headed by Robert Brook, M.D., evaluated alternative practices for lowering blood pressure and published their findings in the AHA journal Hypertension in 2013.
In their scientific statement, they concluded that “the Transcendental Meditation technique is the only meditation practice that has been shown to lower blood pressure… all other meditation techniques (including MBSR) received a ‘Class III, no benefit, Level of Evidence C’ recommendation and are not recommended in clinical practice to lower blood pressure at this time.”
“The deep, coherent rest of TM makes your physiology more coherent and less stressed, and on that basis improves everything in your life.” —David Orme-Johnson, Ph.D.
Linda Egenes: It seems like the effortlessness of TM is another way that it differs from other techniques.
Dr. Orme-Johnson: That’s correct. Focused Attention and Open Monitoring require focus and mental effort, which engages the mind at the surface level of thinking. Correct practice of TM is effortless, and the brain is able to experience its own transcendental nature, which is correlated with global coherence or orderliness of the brain.
In a way, TM and mindfulness approaches are opposites. For example, the mindfulness approach to treating PTSD is to train the mind to detach from traumatic memories. It attempts to use volitional control of the mind to change how one reacts to stresses. Mindfulness programs do not provide the deep rest that dissolves stress. Rather, they teach people to change their attitudes and reactions toward stress.
The mechanism of TM, on the other hand, is to put the body and mind into a healing state of deep, coherent rest. When the physiology has a chance to rest so deeply, it releases stress and heals itself. Consequently, the stressful emotions associated with the disturbing memory are softened.
Mindfulness tries to teach you to use your mind to cope with stress, but it doesn’t get rid of it. TM dissolves the stress; it does get rid of it. The deep, coherent rest of TM makes your physiology more coherent and less stressed, and on that basis improves everything in your life.