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Paths to Total Brain Development


by Robert Keith Wallace, PhD

The paths to Total Brain Development are varied and personal. Some are arduous and complex, while others are smooth and simple. Some are more religious; others are more secular and open to scientific research. Our affinity for a particular path depends on the kind of life experiences we have had.

In the East, total brain development has been defined as enlightenment and traditionally has been achieved through the practice of meditation. Different traditions have had different names for enlightenment and the path to achieve it. In Buddhism the terms bodhi, satori, and kensho, are often used to describe enlightenment. Bodhi means “awakened” and satori “understanding.”  Kensho means “seeing one’s true nature.”

In the Vedic tradition of India the words moksha, nirvana, and nirvikalpa or nitya samadhi are used. Moksha means liberation or freedom from suffering. Nirvana describes the state of transcendence and ultimate stillness that is attained with moksha or liberation. Samadhi is the state of pure consciousness in which there is no distinction between the knower, known, and process of knowing—there is only pure consciousness. Nirvakalpa and nitya samadhi refer to a state in which one is permanently in pure consciousness (samadhi), with no return to lower states of consciousness.

In the West, there has been a different understanding of total gut/brain development. The Greeks recommended, “Know thyself,” and Christians used the phrase, “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” The 18th century philosophers spoke of an Age of Enlightenment or an Age of Reason in which knowledge was gained through logical thinking and objective science.

In spite of these differences there is a remarkable consistency in the personal experiences of those who have reached enlightenment. In the East and in the West enlightened men and women have been the catalysts for transitions that shaped the religions and philosophies of entire cultures and civilizations. There are excellent books, such as The Supreme Awakening by Dr. Craig Pearson, which give examples of these glimpses of enlightenment from different cultures and traditions.

For the mind in harmony with the Tao,
all selfishness disappears.
With not even a trace of self-doubt,
you can trust the universe completely
All at once you are free, with nothing left to hold on to.
In the world of things as they are,
There is no self, no non-self.
If you want to describe its essence,
The best you can say is “Not-Two,”
In this “Not-two” nothing is separate,
And nothing is the world is excluded.
>The enlightened of all times and places have entered into this truth.<
In it there is no gain or loss;
One instant is ten thousand years.
There is no here, no there;
Infinity is right before your eyes.
—Seng-Ts’an (Seng-ts’an lived in the late sixth century, was the third patriarch of Zen in China.)

 

When the mystic enters into the pure and absolute of Unity of the One and into the Kingdom of the One and Alone, mortal reach the end of their ascent. For there is no ascent beyond it, since ascent involves multiplicity, implying, as it does, an ascent from somewhere and an ascent to somewhere, and when multiplicity has been eliminated, Unity is established and relationship ceases, signs are effaced, there remains neither height nor depth, nor one to descend or ascend. No higher ascent for the soul is possible, for there is no height beyond the highest and no multiplicity in the face of the Unity, and since multiplicity has been efface no further ascent.
Those who have passed into unitive life have attained unto a Being transcending all that can be apprehended by sight or insight….There is only the One, the Real.
—Al Ghazali, Sufi (Al-Ghazali was a Persian philosopher who was one of the most prominent and influential philosophers, theologians, jurists, logicians, and mystics, of Sunni Islam. Around 1000 AD)

A human being is part of the whole, called by us, universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest: a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison, restricting us to our personal decisions, and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free our self from this prison by widening our circle of compassion, to embrace all living creatures and the whole of Nature in its beauty.
—Albert Einstein (Novel winning physicist)

 

Many of us may have had related experiences, perhaps when listening to a piece of music, or sitting quietly and enjoying nature.  Sometimes these experiences change or expand our view of life. It’s impossible to determine how many experiences of transcending a person might need in order to release all of his or her stress and reach the full state of enlightenment. Each of us begins our journey from a different place, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Since the most traditional path is that of meditation let us examine different types of meditation.

Three Main Categories of Meditation

 

Recent research clearly shows that there are three main categories of meditation procedure, each with different effects on the brain:

Focused Attention (including Zen, compassion, qigong, and vipassana)

Open Monitoring (including mindfulness and Kriya yoga)

Automatic self-transcending (including Transcendental Meditation)

EEG is the measurement of the electrical activity of the brain. Electrodes are placed on the scalp and electrical signals from the brain are then recorded. The EEG recordings, called brain waves, are analyzed in different ways. The simplest approach is to determine their frequency. Typically, we find the slower frequencies, called delta waves, are associated with sleep, while the faster frequencies, called beta and gamma waves, are indicative of a more lively, attentive state of consciousness.  In between these two are the middle frequencies known as theta and alpha waves, which are associated with sitting quietly in a relaxed state.

Brain imaging procedures, such as CT, PET, and MRI use more invasive and powerful technologies such as x-rays, radioactive tracers and magnetic and radio waves. These techniques make it possible to precisely identify separate parts of the brain and determine the particular activity of each.

What do EEG and brain imaging tell us about what the brain is doing during meditation? In a previous article we discussed three main categories of meditation techniques. Here we will describe the brain activity in each of these.

The focused attention styles of meditation produce rapid gamma and beta EEG waves in the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain.  In one study on Tibetan Buddhist loving-kindness-compassion meditation, the researchers used brain imaging techniques (fMRI) and found significant activity in areas associated with sensory processing, emotions, and attention (including the thalamus, caudate, putamen, right insula, and anterior cingulate).

EEG recordings from Zen meditation, Vipassana meditation, and Sahaja Yoga, or “open monitoring” styles of meditation, show an increase in slower theta waves in the frontal and parietal lobes. Brain imaging studies on Buddhist mindfulness meditation have shown an increase in cortical thickness in the certain areas (middle prefrontal areas and right insula).

In automatic transcending, the category which primarily includes the Transcendental Meditation technique, brain imaging reveals a decrease in activity of the thalamus (concerned with sensory processing), and an increase in the activity of the frontal areas of (concerned with executive functions). EEG recording show an increase in alpha 1 wave activity, and an increase in EEG alpha wave coherence particularly in the frontal areas of the brain.

EEG coherence is a measure of the degree of orderliness and integration in the brain. It is a measure of the linking together and synchronization of different parts of the brain. Higher coherence indicates that there is more communication between any two areas of the brain, for example between the two hemispheres. This higher coherence in alpha waves has been correlated with improved intelligence and creativity.

Even more striking is the finding that these changes show up outside of meditation indicating a permanent change in the style of brain functioning. The longer a person practices TM the greater the increase in frontal EEG alpha wave coherence during activity. Dr Travis, the principal researcher of these studies, has also shown that a higher level of frontal EEG alpha wave coherence is associated with better performance in both business and sports.

The fact that TM produces permanent changes outside of meditation was originally noted in a study by pioneering TM researcher Dr. David Orme-Johnson, who showed the effects of TM technique on how we react to stress. Meditators were presented with stressful stimuli and their responses were measured by galvanic skin response. The results were compared to a non-meditating control group who were given the same experimental conditions. The TM group adapted to the stressful stimuli more quickly than the controls. They were able to bounce back from the stress and be more effective in their actions. The reorganization of the brain during TM results in many positive changes in mental and physical health such as lower blood pressure, fewer heart attacks and strokes, and a decrease in anxiety. It gives us an objective starting point for better understanding the neurophysiology of enlightenment and total brain development.

 

Selected References

  1. The Supreme Awakening: Experiences of Enlightenment Throughout Time – And How You Can Cultivate Them by Craig Pearson, MIU Press, 2013
  2. Travis FT and Shear J. Focused attention, open monitoring and automatic self-transcending: Categories to organize meditations from Vedic, Buddhist and Chinese traditions. Consciousness and Cognition 19(4):1110-1118, 2010
  3. Wallace RK. Physiological effects of Transcendental Meditation. Science 167:1751-1754, 1970
  4. Wallace RK, et al. A wakeful hypometabolic physiologic state. American Journal of Physiology 221(3): 795-799, 1971
  5. Wallace RK. Physiological effects of the Transcendental Meditation technique: A proposed fourth major state of consciousness. Ph.D. thesis. Physiology Department, University of California, Los Angeles, 1970
  6. Orme-Johnson DW and Walton KW. All approaches of preventing or reversing effects of stress are not the same. American Journal of Health Promotion 12:297-299, 1998
  7. Orme-Johnson, D.W. Autonomic stability and Transcendental Meditation. Psychosom. Med. 1973, 35, 341–349.
  8. Harung, H.S.; Travis, F. World-Class Brain; Routledge: New York, NY, USA, 2019.
  9. The Coherence Effect by Wallace, R.K.; Marcus, J.B.; Clark, C.S.; Armin Lear Press: Boulder, CO, USA, 2020.