Neurological Differences Between Three Major Meditative Traditions

(from Consciousness Studies Online)

With the emergence of contemplative neuroscience, it is now evident that not all types of meditation produce the same kinds of brain changes. However, I've noticed that among the general population, it is commonly believed that meditation of one variety is not much different from any other. In fact, I recently attended what was supposed to be a short introduction to meditation presented by a community college honor society, only to realize that the presenter was actually a hypno-therapist who mistakenly equated hypnosis with meditation. It's a common mistake, actually. Hypnotic states certainly do not always resemble meditative states when viewed through an EEG, for example. In addition, hypnosis is often used to reprogram the mind, whereas meditation is often about letting go of all such programs. It was also stated in this particular presentation that meditation increases positive emotional activity in the left prefrontal cortex, but this statement is quite misleading. In only one form of meditation has such activity been consistently observed: Tibetan Buddhist compassion meditation.

Dr. Fred Travis of the Center for Brain, Consciousness, and Cognition gave a presentation in April of 2006 at the Science of Consciousness in Tucson, AZ, and revealed some of the major differences between three meditative traditions:

  • Tibetan Buddhism (TB)
  • Mindfulness Meditation (MM)
  • Transcendental Meditation (TM)

3 Procedural Categories

Dr. Travis finds major procedural differences between these three traditions:

  • TB = Concentration
  • MM = Observation
  • TM = Effortless Transcending

Because TM is exceptionally easy to learn and master, novice TM meditators often produce identical or nearly identical EEG readings to those of experienced TM meditators. The picture below shows comparisons between two meditators of roughly the same age during meditation. Even though the more experienced meditator has nearly 8 years more experience than the novice, the novice's EEG is nearly identical to that of the experienced meditator during meditation.

The picture below, however, shows a marked difference in EEG readings between the two meditators when engaged in activities other than meditation. The experienced meditator's brain has clearly integrated this transcendental consciousness into daily activities.

Neurological Differences

Though few if any MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or PET (positron emission tomography) scans taken during MM are available, many such scans have been done for TB and TM. However, other neural studies have been conducted on MM. The following major differences have been found:


  • Increased activity in the left frontal lobe
  • Increased activity in the thalamus
  • Decreased activity in the parietal lobes


  • Thicker frontal
  • Thicker right insula
  • Thicker sensory


  • Increased activity and coherence in the frontal lobes
  • Increased activity in the parietal lobes
  • Decreased activity in the thalamus

EEG Differences

EEG patterns also differ between the three traditions:

  • TB = High 40 Hz activity; high 40 Hz fronto-parietal phase synchrony
  • MM = Left frontal-central activation
  • TM = High frontal alpha coherence and higher frontal-posterior phase synchrony

Inferences Regarding Brainwave Entrainment (BWE)

Allow me to state at the outset that this entry is not intended to promote one meditative tradition over another, but is rather intended to educate about the fundamental differences in meditative approaches. This entry is merely a report of a presentation given by Dr. Fred Travis, who admittedly represents the TM organization.

Metanoia is currently developing entrainment technology to be used as an adjunct to meditation, and will incorporate research on various meditative traditions into its methodology.

Regarding TM, the following BWE protocols are warranted:

  • Increased Alpha coherence in the frontal lobes
  • Increased coherence in the parietal lobes
  • Increased synchrony between the frontal and parietal lobes
  • Decreased thalamus activity


  • Higher communication between frontal lobes
  • Greater communication between frontal and parietal lobes
  • Restful alertness; pure wakefulness in the midst of deep silence
  • Specific Alpha frequencies can act as carrier waves for higher perception processes, presumably through harmonic resonance
  • Higher cognitive performance
  • Better performance in spatial tasks
  • Better memory
  • Higher creativity
  • Quicker reaction time

Regarding TB the following BWE protocols are warranted:

  • Increased Gamma over most of the scalp
  • In creased Gamma synchrony between frontal and parietal lobes
  • Increase thalamus activity


  • Increased positive emotions
  • Ability to shift "emotional set-point"
  • Increased focus
  • Better complex recall

We (Metanoia) are hoping to have our Meditation Program available by Summer, '08, but hopefully sooner. While we are not promoting this program as an alternative to traditional meditation, we do believe it to be an uncommonly effective adjunct capable of developing the more profound characteristics of meditation in a much easier manner than with traditional meditation alone. This program will have many other unique features, not the least of which will be a genuinely holistic approach based on the Integral Theory of Ken Wilber. And we are making sure that it includes methodologies based on the latest scientific research, so please stay tuned.

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