Sunday, 16 December 2012

Non-directive meditation: Frontal and central-temporal theta, posterior alpha

A study of a type of non-directive meditation (Lagopoulos et al, 2009) produced results that are largely in accord with much of the literature on open-monitoring and mindfulness meditation.

Acem meditation, which was originally developed in Norway, involves adopting a "free mental attitude" similar to mindfulness meditation in allowing "any thought, memory, emotion, or sensation to emerge and pass through the awareness of the practitioner, without any volitional attempt to control the current content."  A meaningless multisyllable sound is repeated to induce relaxation.

18 experienced meditators were recruited form the acem meditation community.  Subjects acted as their own controls, and a meditation condition was contrasted with a quite rest condition.  The results indicated that this form of meditation increased theta (4-8 Hz) and alpha (8-12 Hz) waves significantly more than relaxation.  Theta activity was greater in frontal and central-temporal regions and alpha was more abundant posteriorly.  The authors of the study speculated that the increased theta activity likely reflects increased awareness and attention, as well as cognitive and affective processing during meditation, whereas the increase in alpha activity likely relates to relaxation.  The greater theta in frontal and temporal-central regions than in posterior regions was thought to reflect neural processing in the frontal midline (anterior cingulate cortex) and limbic areas, which have a prominent role in emotional processing.  The abundance of posterior alpha waves was thought to be related to reduced cognitive processing in sensory-related areas.

Jim Lagopoulos, Jian Xu, Inge Rasmussen, Alexandra Vik, Gin S. Malhi, Carl F. Eliassen, Ingrid E. Arntsen, Jardar G. Sæther, Stig Hollup, Are Holen, Svend Davanger, and Øyvind Ellingsen. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. November 2009, 15(11): 1187-1192. doi:10.1089/acm.2009.0113.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

More on jhana states

Another eeg study (Hagerty et al, 2008) looked at an expert meditator who was able to enter into the eight jhanas.   Relative to a resting state, differences were found in seven different brain regions.  Power increased in the theta (4-6 Hz) and alpha1 (6-8 Hz) in brain regions suggesting that speech was becoming dormant, external awareness dimming, and the sense of personal boundaries altering.  In brain regions associated with goal attainment, alpha1 increased, but theta did not.  A prediction was mostly confirmed for higher power in the beta (12.5 to 25 Hz) and gamma (25 to 42 Hz) bands in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which regulates and monitors attention.

Hagerty, M.R., Issacs, J., Brasingon, L., Shupe, L., Fetz, E.E. (2008).  Eeg power and coherence analysis of an expert meditator in the eight jhanas.  Working paper.

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Jhana states in concentration meditation

In Theravada Buddhism there are two intersecting paths to nibhana, samatha or concentration meditation and vipassana or mindfulness meditation.  In the samatha path, there are levels referred to as jhanas, each one of which is more refined than the previous one.  An EEG study by DeLosAngeles et al (2007) using 13 experienced jhana practitioners showed that there were sequential changes in the distinct states of meditation as reported subjectively.  Compared to an eyes-closed resting baseline, there were global decreases in delta power and an initial global increase in alpha power.  However, while delta power continued to decrease in the deeper states so did alpha power.  The initial increases in alpha power together with the decreases in delta power were thought to indicate enhanced attentional processing in a relaxed but vigilant, non-drowsy state.  The decreases in alpha power in the deeper states were thought to be consistent with a subjective decrease in external attention during the deeper states of meditation.

DeLosAngeles, D., Williams, G., Burston, J., Pope, K. J., Clark, C. R., Loveless, S., Lewis, T., Whitham, E., Fitzgibbon, S., Wallace, A. & Willoughby, J. O. (2007). Electroencephalographic changes during states of Buddhist concentrative meditation. Abstract presented to the 7th International Brain Research Organisation World Congress of Neuroscience, Melbourne, 12-17th July.

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Alpha suppression differentiates FA and OM

Differences in alpha suppression were observed in early studies and present a clear contrast between concentration meditation and mindfulness meditation.  Normally, repetition of a stimulus will result in alpha suppression and then habituation.  Anand et al (1961) observed no alpha suppression by experienced practitioners of Raj Yoga, a form of concentration meditation, whereas Kasamatsu and Hirai (1966) observed that in experienced practitioners of Zazen, a form of open monitoring meditation, alpha suppression occurred to repetitive auditory stimuli with no habituation to the stimuli.  This suggests that in concentration meditation there is a relative lack of awareness of repetitive stimuli competing with the primary object of meditation, whereas in open monitoring there is awareness that is fresh to each repetition.

Anand, B., Chhina, G. S., & Singh, B. (1961). Some aspects of electroencephalographic
studies in yogis. Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, 13, 452–456.

Kasamatsu, A., & Hirai, T. (1966). An electroencephalographic study on the Zen meditation (Zazen). Folia Psychiatrica et Neurologica Japonica, 20, 315–336.

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Relax, Focus and Open

Relaxation, focused awareness meditation, and open monitoring meditation differ.

A study of the differences between these relaxation, concentration meditation and mindfulness meditation was done by Dunn and associates (1999).  In this study, ten student volunteers, all of whom were new to meditation, were taught concentration meditation for five weeks followed by five weeks of training in mindfulness meditation.  19 channel EEG recordings were made of the students at the outset of the study and then at the end with the first recording used only to familiarize the students with the recording procedure.  For the final recordings, the students were asked first to relax and then to practice concentration meditation and then mindfulness meditation.  Differences were found in all the bands studied, and the researchers concluded that each of the conditions was distinct.  However, because of the limited number of participants, the length of their training, and the likely cross contamination of the three conditions, the study has limited value in identifying the defining signatures of relaxation, concentration and open monitoring.

Dunn, B.R., Hartigan, J.A., & Mikulas, W.L. (1999). Concentration and mindfulness meditations:  Unique forms of consciousness?  Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 24(3), 147-165.

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Friday, 9 November 2012

Meditation and the Brain--Introduction

Over the last few decades there has been an upsurge in interest in meditation and its impact on the brain.  Research has appeared that attempts to pinpoint the areas of the brain affected and the possible benefits that meditation has.  In future posts, I will look at the neuroshaping possibilities that this research suggests.  The research on meditation and the brain is voluminous at this point so I will try to be quite focused and purposeful in my review.  I will identify research that points the way to assessing meditation skills and provides guidance for the development of meditation skills using the emerging neuroshaping technologies.

There are many kinds of meditation and one can go seriously astray by assuming that they are interchangeable.  Even within a given meditation tradition there may be differences in the specific instructions for meditating.  One of the distinctions that has proven useful in the literature is between focused awareness (FA) and open monitoring (OM) forms of meditation.  This roughly corresponds to a distinction between meditation on a single object or invariant set of stimuli (e.g., the breath, a mantra, the name of a revered figure) and open monitoring meditation that is open to any object that shows up (e.g, thoughts, memories, sights and sounds, bodily sensations).  Within the Theravada Buddhist tradition, this corresponds to the distinction between concentration meditation (samatha) and insight or mindfulness meditation (vispassana).  For the purposes of my review, the focus will be on mindfulness meditation (OM).  In addition to the distinctions between FA and OM, the literature differentiates between meditation and sleep and relaxation.

In the literature there is a distinction between state and trait effects.  This relates to different but related aims for meditation.  The first aim is to induce an altered state during practice. The second aim is to produce long-lasting positive effects on the brain that are present even when the meditator is not actively engaged in meditation.  Theoretically it is possible to induce altered states that are similar to or the same as those present while meditating through entrainment technologies, for instance.  However, the trait effects likely only develop through practice and represent acquired skills.  My primary focus is on developing meditation traits and skills rather than just inducing altered states.

There is great diversity in the technologies used to measure and study the meditating brain.  EEG is the oldest.  More recently MRI and fMRI have been used extensively.  For the purpose of this review, my primary focus will be on EEG studies, the primary reason being that my own experience has been with EEG exclusively.  EEG is also a relative inexpensive technology and the least invasive.  Furthermore, the emerging neuroshaping technologies that are accessible to the general public use EEG.

The novice/expert model has been employed extensively in this literature nd is relevant to the focus here on meditation skills.  Some studies compare inexperienced controls to individuals with modest experience with meditation consisting of days to months, while others compare novices to experts with thousands of hours of experience meditating.  There are a host of problems making conclusions about the impact of meditating on the brain from these studies due to all the confounds that arise using individuals at such varying degrees of proficiency in meditation.  I will share a study that I did of a Buddhist monk with 30 years of experience with meditation and indicate some of the difficulties that arose in looking at his brain.

Finally, the greatest challenge is looking at the role of neuroshaping technologies in meditation.  There is clear support in the literature for meditation itself being a neuroshaping "technology."  But the role in developing meditation skills of the newer neuroshaping technologies of neurofeedback and the wearable, "thought controlled computing" devices, has hitherto received little attention.

Please feel free to comment or, if you wish, direct questions and comments to me directly at drampsych at

Monday, 5 November 2012

Wish list for a neuroshaping device

I have a wish list for a neuroshaping device.

First, it should be inexpensive, within the range of $100 to $150.

Second, you should be able to use it without assistance and, ideally, be able to just slip it on.

Third, it should use dry electrodes.  You shouldn't have to apply paste or saline solutions.  Currently, the dry electrodes used in the more inexpensive devices cannot be used where there is hair on the scalp.  It would be nice if some hairy sites could also be used, but that may be too much to ask at this point.  (See examples of wearable devices in development The picture below shows one I like because it allows for hairy sites.

Fourth, it should have excellent specifications such as fast sampling rate (512 at least), bit rate of 16 or better, and so on.  Whatever analysis involved should be swift and not get in the way of feedback.

Fifth, the software included should provide access to the raw EEG and use a standard such as EDF so that MatLab and EEGlab can be used to analyze the data.

Six, it should have drivers for third party software such as BioExplorer and BioEra.

I am sure I will think of more.

Please feel free to comment or, if you wish, direct questions and comments to me directly at drampsych at

Automating along the road to mindfulness

If you want to develop mindfulness meditation skills, you should first consider going the low tech way.  My book, The Attentive Mind Workbook:  Self-healing through meditation ( a comprehensive introduction to meditation in the Burmese Mahasi Sayadaw tradition.  You can also access my blog,, which has instructions for mindfulness meditation.

As for the high tech approach, at this stage it is all very experimental.  It is best if you already know the technique of noting that is associated with Mahasi Sayadaw and are introspectively aware enough to distinguish various psycho-physical processes.  I have implemented a simple version of "automated noting" using  BioExplorer and compatible neurofeedback trainers (J&J, Alpha400).  So far, I have used just one electrode site (Cz).  I experimented with my eyes closed and used prerecorded auditory stimuli (initially just naming the frequency).  I set thresholds for each frequency of interest based on my resting state.  When the amplitude of the given frequency passed the established threshold, I introspected to see if I could identify the activity going on at that moment.  I noticed that I could fairly readily differentiate two types of activity (thinking and drifting) associated with frequencies within the beta range.  I then recorded the names for those activities ("thinking" and "drifting") and used them as auditory feedback, again when the amplitudes of the associated frequencies passed the threshold.  (I did not see the need to name the movements of the abdomen associated with breathing ("rising" and "falling") since, presumably, I would be on track with them and using silent noting.)   In this way, the auditory feedback alerted me to the presence of these activities, which I could continue to note until they passed away or I had satisfied myself that I had "seen" them clearly.

I suspect that the specific frequencies that correspond with specific processes may vary from one individual to the next so it may be necessary for each person to follow the same procedure as I used to individualize their auditory feedback.  Ideally, an application should be sufficiently flexible to allow for this.  

In the future, I hope to expand on this simple idea.  I welcome collaborators and any feedback you are willing to provide.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

New study shows neurofeedback's impact on brain

Using fMRI, academic researches showed lasting impact on the brain from short sessions of neurofeedback:

Devices for neuroshaping

In future posts, I will review some of the relatively inexpensive devices that are coming to the market that allow consumers to experiment with neuroshaping.  Some are "wearable" and mobile.

Traditional neurofeedback devices typically cost upwards of $500.  These devices typically rely on the tried-and-true methods of placing electrodes with Ten20 paste after abrading the skin.  Some use saline solutions for a less messy connection.  Their advantage is that you can get a good connection on any portion of the scalp and, if properly prepared, the readings from the electrodes will be accurate.  However, attaching the electrodes and ensuring that you are getting a good connection is time consuming and, if you use the paste, you have to remove it afterwards and, depending on how finicky you are, this may require washing your hair.  This is enough to deter all but the most dedicated of users.  As well, the software often has a steep learning curve.

The newer "wearable" devices, in varying degrees, are attempts to bring this technology to the everyday consumer with easy to use equipment and accessible software applications.   However, there are predictable downsides to the convenience they offer, again to varying degrees.  I have used only one of these devices (the MindWave from NeuroSky) so far, so I will have to rely on the experiences of other users to do my reviews until I can obtain the others that are available.

First, the MindWave (  My initial reaction on obtaining the devices was that it must have been designed for children or adults with small heads.  It was extremely uncomfortable for me. (I have a rather large head--7 3/4 hat size.).  I called the tech department, and they told me that they had heard very few complaints about it.  (I am skeptical.)  The device has a single electrode which can be pivoted about and placed in different positions, but as a dry electrode it will not work on any place on the scalp where there is hair.  Since where you place an electrode on the scalp makes a difference, the fact that it can be pivoted can be seen as an advantage (you can measure the EEG at different sites), but it might impact on the standardization of the readings for the purposes of the software.  The software appeared to work rather well and was not particularly hard to understand.  However, it seemed rather inflexible in that it translated the signal only into standard bands and it is rather simplistic in associating the signals with states such as relaxation, concentration, stress, and meditation.  There is a huge issue of artifact (signals that do not really represent EEG but things like eye blinks and muscle artifact).  The makers of MindWave have turned artifact to an advantage in that you can use eye blinks to control some of the applications.  One of the big pluses of MindWave is that neurofeedback software like BioExplorer and BioEra can be used with  the device allowing more sophisticated users to use protocols for single-channel neurofeedback.  

Another reviewer ( made the following observation:  "Yes, the technology does work. It’s just not very fun."  This is a big problem with this technology.  After the novelty wears off, will anyone want to use it on a daily basis?  If the user is out for fun alone, then the answer is probably no.  This is where the buy-in to neuroshaping may have a role in encouraging people to stick with using the device.  If users can see that this technology will benefit their ability to relax, to deal more effectively with stress, to improve attention and to meditate, they may stick with it.  But this will require credible applications being developed that can be the subject of empirical studies.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Neurofeedback, brain computer interaction and thought controlled computing

Technologies have developed to enable individuals to control computing devices using brainwaves.  The pioneer in this field was Joe Kamiya who conducted experiments in the 1960s that showed that it was possible to train subjects to control an auditory tone by entering into an alpha state.  The field of neurofeedback developed from this discovery, initially as a way of inducing relaxation states associated with alpha brainwaves and later as a way of altering brainwave patterns associated with clinical conditions such as epilepsy and ADHD.   Since its inception and continuing today, neurofeedback is used to improve quality of life by training people to relax, to optimize performance and to manage clinical conditions.  The technology of neurofeedback has broadened in recent years as alternatives to EEG for measuring brain activity have become available, but the principle underlying neurofeedback has remained the same:  It is possible to measure our brain activity and feed back those measurements to us so that we can alter that activity in a desired way.

The field of brain computer interaction (BCI) developed in the 1970s.  Its application has been primarily in developing devices that assist, augment or repair cognitive and sensory-motor functions.  In addition to neurofeedback-like applications using non-invasive electrodes and feedback techniques, BCI employs prosthetic devices and brain implants that allow users to manipulate their minds to produce signals to computers and other communication devices that can, in turn, manipulate external objects or control the user's own body movements.  The feedback in these cases is the movement observable to the user.

Thought controlled computing appears to be a re-branding of neurofeedback and brain computer interaction by Ariel Garten and others.  It is gaining media attention but not always with acknowledgements that the concept and underlying technology are not new (see  Ms. Garten has tapped into our fascination with the idea that we can use the mind to control objects and to know itself and develop skills by externalizing information about the brain's activity.  Although the concept is not new or original to her, the particular technology she is promoting -- inexpensive, convenient and wearable EEG bands -- is relatively new. It remains to be seen whether the device she is promoting (Muse) is superior to the other such devices (NeuroSky and Emotiv) that are available and whether the algorithms that Interaxon is developing for analyzing EEG represent genuine advances in the field.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Innovations in neuroshaping

I recently came across a post on one of the neurofeedback forums about a piece of equipment called Muse produced by Interaxon, a company in Toronto headed by Ariel Garten.  This is one of the new wearable EEG bands that can be used without messy electrode paste and wires.  This kind of technology holds the promise of making neuroshaping applications available on an everyday basis.  (Neurosky and Emotiv are others using similar technology.)   Although the equipment is not yet on the market (promised for spring of 2013), Ms. Garten has been promoting the concept behind it--thought controlled computing--widely for the past few years.  Most notably, she gave a TED talk in 2011 that is available on (  In broad strokes she advances an ambitious case for the concept of thought controlled computing and neuroshaping technologies.  Her background is in neuroscience, performance art, and psychotherapy.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Neurofeedback for neuroshaping

Neurofeedback historically has taken many forms.  Initially, the focus was on reinforcing alpha waves on the assumption that they were associated with relaxation and calm, meditative states.  Reinforcement of beta and SMR waves has also been applied to treat clinical disorders such as epilepsy and ADHD.  Alpha-theta training is used to treat clinical disorders such as alcoholism and anxiety.  With the development of normative databases applied to 19 channels of EEG (QEEG), a more holistic approach to treating clinical disorders has evolved with the idea that virtually any condition that is associated with patterns that are sufficiently outside of norms can be successfully treated with individually targeted neurofeedback.

Alpha and alpha-theta protocols are used most commonly to induce meditative states.  With increased knowledge of gamma waves and their role in deep meditation, alpha-theta-gamma protocols are also used to induce meditative states.

Another, quite different approach, is to use neurofeedback to strengthen meditation skills, such as noting, a meditation technique associated with insight meditation.  Theoretically, it should be possible to establish EEG signatures for certain processes, such as mind wandering, thinking, hearing, and so on, and signal to the meditator their presence in a matter of milliseconds, long before the meditator would normally be aware of them.

Consider the implications of this approach.  The emphasis would not be on inducing a meditative state or experience.  It would be on strengthening sensitivity to psycho-physical processes (i.e., guarding the six sense doors), an essential component of mindfulness meditation..    

Saturday, 18 February 2012

State versus skill

In relation to meditation, the predominant use of brainwave entrainment technologies and neurofeedback seems to be to induce a meditative experience or state.

Consider Holosync, one of the most heavily advertised of the brainwave entrainment methods:
"Holosync helps you meditate even more deeply than a Zen monk.  Get all the benefits of meditation--but without all the struggle... Holosync not only allows you to meditate more deeply than with traditional methods--it allows you to experience the benefits of meditation in a fraction of the time."

That sounds pretty good.  And how does that happen?  By just sitting quietly with earphones and listening to binaural beats.

There is abundant evidence that entrainment works to the extent that the brain can be induced to produce specific brainwaves with this technology.  However, by using this technology, do we become proficient meditators, like those who have years of practice in the traditional manner?

The methods clearly differ.  Holosync appears rather passive, while the traditional methods are more active and effortful.  One induces a state, the other involves training a skill.  It is possible that the repeated experience of meditative states, especially when done in a well thought-out sequence, could lead to deeper and deeper meditative states.  Does this endow the individual with a skill, in particular, a skill equivalent to that of a monk, one that could be used in different contexts, perhaps even continuously?  Does it endow the user with the characteristics of "mindfulness" presumably found in the monk?  I doubt it.

Monday, 6 February 2012

EEG signatures for Zazen

I recently obtained and read Zen Meditation and Psychotherapy by Tomio Hirai (1989).  It reports some of the early scientific studies of Zen meditation. Dr. Hira, a Japanese psychiatrist, studied the practice of Zazen by seasoned priest practitioners and controls using EEG and various physiological measures. He found that there were four distinct phases in the meditation of the experienced priests:  Stage I-- appearance of alpha waves, Stage II-- increasing alpha amplitude, Stage III-- decreasing alpha frequency, and Stage IV-- appearance of rhythmical theta trains.  He introduced various sounds, clicks and names, to see what happened to the brain waves of the meditators and controls.  While both the experienced meditators and the controls initially reacted to these stimuli by blocking the then dominant rhythm, the meditators' blocking time was a matter of a few seconds and the controls much longer.  However, whereas the controls habituated to the sounds very quickly, the experienced meditators did not.  This indicated that the controls got caught up by the stimuli with associations, but eventually ignored the stimuli, whereas the experienced meditation quickly let go of whatever associations that may have occurred to them and remained open to new stimuli.

Dr. Hirai discussed EEG biofeedback and the potential to bring brainwaves under conscious control.  However, he did not speculate on the possibility of using this technology to assist individuals in developing meditation skills.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Neuroshaping to mindfulness

Neuroshaping can be defined as the use of methods that have demonstrable and lasting impact on the brain with the purpose of creating or increasing desired experiences, states, or skills.  These methods may include low-tech approaches, such as meditation, or high-tech approaches such as brainwave entrainment and neurofeedback.

My project is to see how technologies such as neurofeedback can be used to shape the brain to create the conditions for mindfulness to arise. I call this project "neuroshaping to mindfulness." In future posts, I will describe in greater detail the project, the technologies it uses and some of the results I have had.

A few days ago, my book on meditation, The Attentive Mind Workbook:  Self-healing through Meditation, was published.  It can be obtained from my website,

Please feel free to comment or, if you wish, direct questions and comments to me directly at drampsych at