Medical Science

To determine the relationship between general health and how often long term meditators experienced the state of thoughtless awareness a survey of 350 meditators who had been meditating regularly for more than 2 years was conducted. Their physical health status was assessed using standardised and widely accepted survey instruments (SF36 score).

med_chart_1

This study demonstrated that thoughtless awareness was the most significant contributor to the meditator’s physical health. It showed that those people who experienced thoughtless awareness more often had better physical health. It also showed that those meditators who experienced thoughtless awareness even once or twice per month had a functional health score that was higher than the general population.

Although the association between the experience of thoughtless awareness and functional health is not as strong as that for mental health, the fact that regular meditators did experience better levels than the remaining population is a significant finding. Please read more on health profiles and long term meditators in the next section.

Health Profile of Long-Term Meditators Compared to the General Population

Is long term, regular meditation associated with greater wellbeing? Until recently there was no information in the scientific literature on what the long term health and quality of life of regular meditators might be. Yet, the fact that ancient traditions, modern day enthusiasts and the popular media advocate regular, long term practice of meditation makes such information very important.

In order to explore this we identified a population of long term meditators in Australia that practiced a single, homogenous form of meditation based on thoughtless awareness and assessed their mental and functional health using the SF36 health questionnaire. We compared this data to national population data and to regular meditators using other forms of meditation.

med_chart_2

Most measures for the meditation group (orange line) were substantially higher than Australian population (light blue area). Measures for the non-meditation group were not significantly different than the Australian population. After controlling for age, smoking and alcohol consumption the differences persisted suggesting that the benefits are not entirely due to lifestyle changes and risk factor reduction alone.

The SF-36 has been used extensively in Australia for both population health and clinical applications. Previous studies have verified the reliability and validity of the MOS-SF 36v1 for use with medical and general population surveys.

The SF-36 is divided into eight domains measuring bodily pain, general health perception, mental health, physical functioning, impairment to role due to emotional problems (role limitation (emotional)), impairment to role due to physical problems (role limitation (physical)), social functioning and vitality. Bodily pain refers to the severity of pain and its impact on daily activities. General health is a rating of one's own health, a comparison with other’s health and proneness to illness. Mental health refers to the degree of nervousness or calmness, happiness or sadness. Physical functioning refers to the ability to perform activities (walking, climbing stairs, bending and stretching, lifting and carrying objects) without limitation. Role limitation (emotional) refers to limitations that emotional problems put on the range and extent of activities one could perform. Role limitation (physical) refers to the limitations that reduced physical health has on the range and extent of physical activities one is able to perform. Social functioning refers to the impact of physical and emotional health on the ability to perform normal social activities. Vitality refers to how energetic or tired a person felt.

Palmar Skin Temperature change over 10 minutes of meditation.

Is the physiology of meditation the same as relaxation or other forms of meditation? Up until recently, modern scientists thought that meditation, regardless of differences between techniques, was more or less a traditional method of achieving relaxation. Relaxation is a specific physiological process that involves the opposite of the “Fight or Flight” response. In other words reductions in heart rate, breathing rate, galvanic skin conductance and increased skin temperature as blood flow patterns change.

med_chart_3

Recently however, western scientists are coming to realize that this way of understanding meditation has serious shortcomings since it does account for changes in consciousness, mental activity as well as the fact that it is possible to be in a meditative state even when not being physically relaxed (such as in sport, creative arts, problem solving and other peak performance scenarios)

In order to try and understand why thoughtless awareness practitioners experienced better health and wellbeing, and why patients experienced improved physical health after even short periods of thoughtless awareness training, we studied the physiological effects of thoughtless awareness practioners who could reliably experience thoughtless awareness even in difficult laboratory conditions. We compared the physiological changes of these meditators to people who used simple relaxation during a single session of 10 minutes of either meditation or relaxation.

Remarkably, while those people using simple relaxation manifested the expected increase in palmar skin temperature, the thoughtless awareness practitioners, who focused on the experience of thoughtless awareness, manifested reductions in palmar skin temperature. This occurred despite the fact that heart rate was not different between the two groups. This suggests that thoughtless awareness is associated with a physiological activity that is fundamentally different to simple relaxation. This difference may explain why thoughtless awareness is associated with health benefits and therapeutic effects.

Thoughtless awareness and the Brain

What happens in the brain during thoughtless awareness? A well-designed study, published on a leading academic journal (Neuroscience Letters), assessed novice and advanced meditators during a single session of meditation. During this session brain electrical activity (EEG) was measured and used to produce colour coded images such as the one above

thoughtless awareness meditators were asked to also indicated the degree of thoughtless awareness that they experienced during their meditation session

The practice of thoughtless awareness is associated with profound development of alpha and theta wave activity over the fronto parietal areas of the brain. These areas of the brain are associated with attention and personality. Alpha activity is associated with reduced stressful activity. Overall this pattern of activity indicates that meditators were experiencing a state of relaxed, focused attention

These changes were directly related to the degree of thoughtless awareness that mediators reported to experience during the meditation session.

*) Silence Your Mind by Dr Ramesh Manocha, Hachette Australia Pty Limited, 2013

Manocha R, Black D, Wilson L Functional Health and Quality of Life in Long Term Meditators, Evidence-Based Complementary Medicine, Evidence-Based Complementary Medicine

Manocha R, Black D, Ryan J, Stough C, Spiro D, Changing Definitions of Meditation: Physiological Corollorary, Journal of the International Society of Life Sciences

Aftanas, L., & Golosheykin, S. Human anterior and frontal midline theta and lower alpha reflect emotionally positive state and internalized attention: high-resolution EEG investigation of meditation. Neurosci Lett. 2001 Sep 7;310(1):57-60.

Aftanas, L. I., & Golocheikine, S. A. (2002). Non-linear dynamic complexity of the human EEG during meditation. Neurosci Lett, 330(2), 143–146.