The Focus Style of NeuroMeditation

Focus NeuroMeditation

Based on the intention of the meditator, the way attention is directed and brain activation/deactivation patterns, we can identify 4 distinct styles of meditation practice: Focus, Mindfulness, Open Heart and Quiet Mind.

The Focus style represents a constellation of practices where the attention is directed toward a single object such as the breath, a mantra, or an image of a deity. The most common way to practice this style is to direct the attention toward some aspect of the breath. It might be the expansion of the belly with each inbreath and the contraction with each outbreath; or perhaps the attention is focused on the sensation of warm air flowing out of the nostrils with each exhalation and cool air flowing into the nostrils on each inhalation. In any case, the mind typically can only maintain attention on such a task for a few seconds and then it becomes bored or distracted. The mind starts looking for something a bit more interesting. The mind may begin remembering something that happened last night or this morning, or the mind may become engaged in planning or judging or story-telling or any number of automatic cognitive processes. This mind wandering is a natural part of the way the human mind works. During Focus forms of NeuroMeditation, when the mind wanders, the task is to become aware of this as soon as possible and gently, patiently and kindly usher the attention back to the original target.

While it may sound simple, this practice is very powerful and serves as an important foundation for other styles of NeuroMeditation. Focus practices help the mind develop a stability of attention necessary for other practices. The Focus style is also ideal for anyone wanting to train their mind to be more focused and less distracted-in essence to have more control over the mind and its activities. 

Focus Neuromeditation

The Brain on Focus NeuroMeditation

There are two primary brain regions involved in Focus NeuroMeditation, the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) and the Default Mode Network (DMN).  The ACC sits in the frontal lobes and connects the cortex of the brain to the more primitive, emotion based centers of the limbic system. The ACC is involved in a variety of cognitive tasks including sustaining and directing attention as well as becoming aware of mind wandering. The DMN is a network of brain regions that are most active when a person is thinking about something in reference to themselves-this is our default mode.  It is where your mind goes when it is not otherwise occupied. In this way, activation of the DMN is often associated with mind wandering. So, Focus styles of NeuroMeditation involve activation of the ACC (when you are focused), alternating with activation of the DMN (when your mind is wandering).

EEG NeuroMeditation

Through the use of EEG monitoring and neurofeedback, we can measure the brain patterns associated with Focus NeuroMediation in real time and provide auditory feedback signals to a meditator when their brain is on the right track.  This neurofeedback-based approach to meditation (EEG NeuroMeditation) becomes a powerful tool for guiding and assisting the meditation process; essentially helping meditators learn what it feels like to meditate and how to get there more rapidly.

Providing EEG NeuroMeditation requires that the practitioner has a solid background in neurofeedback, but also the skills to coach someone in meditation practices. In the EEG NeuroMeditation workshops sponsored by Stress Therapy Solutions, we teach the theory, science, methods and protocols behind the 4 styles as well specific skills, tools and techniques to facilitate this process with clients. If you are interested in learning how to use neurofeedback with meditation, check our upcoming events for the next 2 day training. You can also check out Dr. Tarrant’s chapter, “Introduction to NeuroMeditation” in the, Handbook of Clinical Qeeg and Neurotherapy.

Because NeuroMeditation is essentially a brain-based approach to meditation, it can be practiced individually or in groups without the use of EEG or neurofeedback equipment.

What is NeuroMeditation?

NeuroMeditation Institute Logo

With the development of the NeuroMeditation Institute (NMI), and the launching of the NMI certification program, it seemed important to clarify what NeuroMeditation is. It is not a single thing. It is a process, a system, and a set of therapeutic interventions. This series will explore the term and the ways we are using it help people become more of their ideal self.

NeuroMeditation is the application of brain based principles to meditation practices.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of different forms of meditation out there, each with their own specific traditions and practices. There are meditation practices, such as Transcendental Meditation (TM), where you are learning to let go and empty the mind, allowing the mind to sink into a space of restful awareness.  There are concentration practices that ask the practitioner to focus their attention on their breath or an image of the Buddha or a specific word or phrase; gently returning the mind to the target each time it wanders. There are still other practices such as Taiji Chuan that involve a pattern of choreographed movements and a focus on continually “sinking the energy” and “moving like water.” All of these can be considered forms of meditation, yet each is quite different. Because there are so many styles and traditions and there is so much information available about these practices, it is a bit overwhelming. This overload of information makes it very challenging for someone to know where to begin or which meditation practices might be best suited for their specific needs.

Based on the way attention is directed, based on our intention during the practice and based on the way it impacts the brain, all meditations generally fall into one (or more) of 4 categories: Focus, Mindfulness, Quiet Mind and Open Heart.

NMI Styles Breakdown

Focus Meditation: Voluntary control of attention and cognitive processes. This style might be best for you if you want to improve your focus and concentration and reduce your mind wandering.

Mindfulness Meditation: Dispassionate, non-evaluative awareness of ongoing experience. You might choose to practice this style if you want to get better at letting things go and reducing internal judgment.

Quiet Mind Meditation: Automatic transcending of the procedures of the meditation practice that leads to an open awareness. This practice is ideal if you are interested in minimizing internal self-talk and learning to achieve a state of restful awareness.

Open Heart Meditation: Activation of positive emotional states (e.g., love, compassion, peace) along with an unrestricted readiness to help all living beings. Meditations in this category are ideal for increasing empathy, generosity and perspective taking.

By understanding the differences between meditation styles, you can choose a style of meditation practice to match your goals.

NeurMediation Styles Inventory

Take the NeuroMeditation Styles Inventory to find out which style is the best fit for you!

Stay tuned for Part II, where we will explore NeuroMeditation as a set of brain-based tools for specific mental health concerns including ADHD, anxiety, depression and “disorders of the self.”

Your Brain on VR: Mindfulness in Nature

Your Brain on VR: Mindfulness in Nature

Mindfulness in Nature

Popular articles that discuss brainwaves in relation to states of consciousness often simplify matters by indicating that there are four types of brain waves: Delta, Theta, Alpha and Beta.  Delta, Theta and Alpha can all be considered “slow” brainwaves.  When they are dominant, the brain is often in a more relaxed or quiet state.  Beta and brainwaves faster than beta, such as high beta or gamma, can be considered “fast” brainwaves.  When these are dominant, the brain is active and engaged.

We need these brainwaves to be flexible and fluid, shifting and changing with whatever task we give our brain.  For example, when it is time to rest we expect slow brainwaves to increase and fast brainwaves to decrease.  When we are balancing the checkbook or making an important decision, we expect the opposite pattern.

By measuring brainwaves before and after a specific task or experience, we can get a picture of how the brain was impacted; did it become more alert and aroused or more relaxed and quiet?

We wanted to know how the brain responds when someone engages in a virtual reality meditation, so we used quantitative EEG technology to tell us.

First we oriented our volunteer subject to Virtual Reality by having them watch 2 different StoryUp immersive stories. After the orientation we obtained a baseline measurement of their brainwaves using a 19 channel EEG system.  The volunteer then participated in a 4 minute mindfulness in nature experience after which we measured the brainwaves one more time.

Overall, the results showed a significant quieting of the brain after experiencing the brief VR meditation, measured by decreases in fast activity (gamma) and increases in slow activity (theta and alpha). This, by itself, was impressive given the relatively brief exposure to the meditation.  Perhaps more importantly, an analysis of specific brain regions impacted by the VR meditation showed that areas of the brain involved in the stress response were some of the most significantly impacted.

Below are 3D brain images showing changes in the brain after the VR meditation. Cooler colors (blues) indicate that the activity measured has decreased whereas brighter colors (yellow, orange, red) indicate that activity has increased.

The first picture is looking at fast brainwave activity (gamma) in the anterior cingulate.  Blue colors indicate that gamma activity decreased significantly during the meditation.  This is important because this part of the brain often becomes overactivated during stress and anxiety or when we become fixated on thoughts, feelings or behaviors. By helping this area to relax, the brain is shifting into a more relaxed, peaceful state.

Mindfulness in Nature

In the next image, we switch from examining fast brainwaves to looking at slow brainwaves. In particular, we are looking at alpha activity in the Precuneus.  This part of the brain is the hub of the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN).  When the DMN is quieter, as seen here, this suggests that the person is not thinking about themselves (or their worries) as much, which is exactly what we would hope to see during this experience.

Mindfulness in Nature

These results provide preliminary evidence that this type of technology can have a nearly immediate impact on the stress response. We are in the process of developing a range of VR meditations with different environments, lengths and guided instructions to help people manage stress, improve their sleep and reduce pain.

The Brain of a Qigong Master

The Brain of a Qigong Master

My primary Qigong teacher has been Master Ken Cohen. He has more than 45 years experience in a variety of healing arts and recently allowed me to measure his brainwave activity during two different healing practices and the results were very interesting.

First we examined how his brainwave activity changed when he was engaged in a Qigong energy healing technique with a patient sitting and lying on a massage table. Ken stood near the client and performed a variety of energy healing techniques that he identified as being a relatively general cleansing and wellness protocol. Ken wore an electrocap fitted with 19 electrodes. His brainwave activity was measured first in a baseline condition, simply standing with his eyes open doing nothing. Next his brainwave activity was recorded during the healing session. After the data were cleaned to remove any artifacts from movement the two recordings were compared.

The Brain of a Qigong Master

The brain images below are showing the percent of change in each brainwave (delta-high gamma) comparing healing with baseline. The key below each head map indicates the range of change. For example, the graph under the gamma head map ranges from -73 to +73. This means that anywhere the gamma head map shows colors at the extreme (red or deep blue) there is up to a 73% difference in brainwave activity in those regions.

The Brain of a Qigong Master

Clearly, the largest changes that occurred during an external qi healing related to increases in fast brainwave activity (high beta, gamma and high gamma) in left prefrontal regions and occipital regions. Interstingly, increased gamma in the left prefrontal regions has been seen in Tibetan monks engaged in a lovingkindness/compassion meditation. It is also associated with an approach orientation toward others and a positive outlook. The huge increase in occipital activation suggests visual processing. It makes sense that these areas may be involved while the healer “sees” the areas of the energy body in need of healing or visualizing healing energy moving into the body.

Ken Cohen (Gao Han) is the Executive Director and founder of the Qigong Research & Practice Center. He is a world-renowned health educator, China scholar, and Qigong GrandMaster with more than forty-five years experience. A former collaborator with Alan Watts, he is the author of the internationally acclaimed book The Way of Qigong: The Art and Science of Chinese Energy Healing (Ballantine), best-selling self-healing audio and video courses (Sounds True), and more than 200 journal articles. In 2003 Ken Cohen won the leading international award in energy medicine, the Alyce and Elmer Green Award for Innovation and Lifetime Achievement.

NeuroMeditation for ADHD, Anxiety, Depression, and More…..

NeuroMeditation for ADHD, Anxiety, Depression, and More…..

NeuroMeditation for ADHD, Anxiety and Depression

Despite the obvious appeal and increased accessibility of meditation training with programs such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), it remains a significant challenge for many individuals to maintain a consistent practice. Early meditators often complain that they do not know if they are “doing it right” or give up before realizing any significant benefits. By providing the meditator with immediate feedback on their brainwave state, a neurotherapist can help define and refine the process, potentially increasing motivation, interest and impact.

Research examining the role of attention, intention, brainwave states and brain regions involved has shown that there are basically four different types of meditation practices; these include Focused Attention, Open Monitoring, Automatic Self-Transcending and Loving-Kindness/Compassion. Each of these styles of meditation impact the brain in different ways, making each an ideal match for specific mental health concerns. Focused Attention or concentration practices provide the exact type of brain training needed for ADHD and concerns of focus and distractibility. Open Monitoring practices, such as mindfulness meditation affect the brain in ways that make it perfectly suited for managing stress and anxiety. Automatic Self Transcending is similar to an Open Focus approach and is helpful for quieting down the overactive self-referencing that is so common with personality disorders and addictions. Loving-kindness and compassion practices change the brain in ways that can have a significant impact on depression or mood concerns.

YouTube video of my talk: Intro to NeuroMeditation

By combining these specific meditations with neurofeedback protocols it is possible to target the brain waves and brain regions that are consistent with these meditations, helping the client to more easily and consistently achieve the desired state of consciousness. For example, an Open Monitoring neuromeditation session might involve connecting sensors to two or more locations on the clients scalp which monitor brainwave activity. One sensor might focus on theta activity in the frontal lobes (anterior cingulate gyrus), providing a pleasant tone when this activity increases. Another sensor might monitor alpha activity in the back of the brain (Precuneus) and offer a second tone when the brain decreases alpha activity. When both of these tones are present, the person is very likely to be in a state of “observing the self.” The client can sit with their eyes closed, engaged in a mindfulness meditation, quietly and nonjudgmentally watching every thought, bodily sensation and emotional reaction that passes through consciousness. This practice leads to a healthy detachment to the difficulties caused by our over analytic, obsessive and worrying thoughts, allowing relief from stress and anxiety.

Using brainwave feedback to provide a reward signal for increases in frontal theta activation, one of my neuromeditation clients described the experience like this:

“This protocol, or at least the way I was approaching the session led to a very mellow, pleasant state of mind. Very calming, slow and relaxed. I just let go of any thoughts and don’t try to force anything to happen or to not happen. I seemed to receive the reward when I was a little bit more focused rather than so easygoing as my typical meditation is, or as I would like it to be. I came out of this session not wanting it to end nor wanting to speak or verbalize my experience.”

A session review graph, after a period to allow for adjustment to the protocol, clearly shows a gradual increase in FM theta at ACC and a reduction of alpha in the Precuneus.

ACC Theta and Precuneus Alpha during an OM Neuromeditation session.

ACC Theta and Precuneus Alpha during an OM Neuromeditation session.

Neuromeditation has become my “go to” intervention for any clients wanting the benefit of neurofeedback, but also wanting to develop skills that can be practiced at home. The combination of these ancient and modern technologies enhances both and promises to be a powerful tool for improved psychological and emotional wellness.

Qigong for Health and Well-Being

Qigong for Health and Well-Being

Qigong is a system of slow movements, breathing techniques and meditations.  This is an ancient Chinese practice that is used to accumulate, cleanse, and refine our life force.  Qi is the Chinese word for “life energy.”  Gong means “work.”  Thus, Qigong means working with the life energy, learning how to control the flow and distribution of qi to improve the health and harmony of mind and body.  By learning to feel and self-regulate the flow of qi, one can relax and let go of stress and worry, promoting balance.

Qigong was originally a Taoist practice used to assist in spiritual development.  By working with the internal energy, a Taoist practitioner would refine their base energy into more and more subtle levels of energy, allowing them to move past cravings and attachments and live in flow with the natural rhythms of the Universe.

Forms of Qigong were later developed that focus on physical health.  These are the most common forms taught in the United States and include 5 element Qigong, Healing Sounds, Bone Marrow Cleansing, Primordial, Yi Quan and Coiling Silk.  These forms are generally concerned with cleansing, purifying and circulating healthy Qi throughout the energy body.  These exercises are designed to break up stagnation and create healthy movement in the meridians and energy centers (dan tians) of the energy body.  In this way, Qigong is often referred to as acupuncture without needles.

YouTube of my Qigong video 5 element Qigong:

Finally, Qigong can be used as a martial art application, the most common of which is Taiji Quan or Tai Chi.  While it may not look like a martial art at first glance, every movement in these systems have martial art applications.  When these systems are performed with correct form and intent they are much more than a dance and become a healing practice that improves balance, coordination and timing.

Research has shown that Qigong and Tai Chi participation reduces blood pressure, increases maximum oxygen consumption, increases immune function, and improves flexibility, posture and balance.  The meditative and breathing practice aspects of Qigong and Tai Chi programs have been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.

The Mind of the Medium: The Art and Science of Psychic Mediumship

The Mind of the Medium: The Art and Science of Psychic Mediumship

The Mind of the Medium

Mediums are individuals that claim to have the ability to communicate with the spirits of the departed.  The popularity of television programs featuring Mediums such as “The Long Island Medium” and “The Haunting of…” clearly shows that American interest in this topic has not slowed down.  Unfortunately, the scientific community has largely dismissed Mediums as charlatans preying on grieving family members.  This viewpoint assumes that the abilities that are claimed are impossible.  Any information shared by a Medium that seems accurate are merely good guesses achieved through “cold reading” techniques.

Granted, there are many people out there claiming to have Mediumship abilities that are charlatans and do use cold reading techniques. And, there are others.

For the past 2 1/2 years I have been mapping the brains of Mediums and psychics while they engage in their skill.  During these experiments I have seen some incredibly accurate readings from Mediums that were careful NOT to gain any information from the sitter (the person receiving the reading).  The Mediums I have worked with have all been certified by one or more of the organizations that test Mediums (Veritas, Windbridge, Forever Family Foundation).  These organizations go to great lengths to test the accuracy of the Medium readings, including utilizing a quadruple blind method which removes the Medium several steps away from the sitter.  These Mediums consistently show unusual brainwave activity when they are engaged in their practice.  Many of them show activity that looks like seizure activity, or tremendous increases of slow brain activity in specific regions.  Another semi-consistent pattern relates to significant increases in fast activity in the back of the head-the areas of the brain associated with visual processing.

The Mind of the Medium

While this work is still preliminary and does not necessarily “prove” that Mediums are communicating with the dead, it does strongly suggest that Mediums are entering a very different state of consciousness when they are engaged in their work.  They do not simply appear to be faking-something interesting is definitely going on!