Meditation Can Lead To Dramatic Enhancement In Cognitive Performance,

Not All Meditative Techniques Impact the Body Mind Alike

13/08/2014 06:06 GMTNational University of Singapore

Back in the day, our spiritual teacher used to make a point of explaining the wide range of meditations. Each designed for specific results, we used to experiment endlessly. Breath meditations, chanting meditations, silent attention and in motion all work in different ways impacting the body mind spirit.

NUS study revealed that Vajrayana meditation techniques associated with Tibetan Buddhism can enhance brain performance

Contrary to popular belief, not all meditation techniques produce similar effects of body and mind. Indeed, a recent study by researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) has demonstrated for the first time that different types of Buddhist meditation – namely the Vajrayana and Theravada styles of meditation – elicit qualitatively different influences on human physiology and behaviour, producing arousal and relaxation responses respectively.

In particular, the NUS research team found that Vajrayana meditation, which is associated with Tibetan Buddhism, can lead to enhancements in cognitive performance.

The study by Associate Professor Maria Kozhevnikov and Dr Ido Amihai from the Department of Psychology at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences was first published in the journal PLOS ONE in July 2014.

Vajrayana and Theravada meditation produce different physiological responses

Previous studies had defined meditation as a relaxation response and had attempted to categorise meditation as either involving focused or distributed attentional systems. Neither of these hypotheses received strong empirical support, and most of the studies focused on Theravada meditative practices.

Assoc Prof Kozhevnikov and Dr Amihai examined four different types of meditative practices: two types of Vajrayana meditations (Tibetan Buddhism) practices (Visualisation of self-generation-as-Deity and Rig-pa) and two types of Theravada practices (Shamatha and Vipassana).

They collected electrocardiographic (EKG) and electroencephalographic (EEG) responses and also measured behavioural performance on cognitive tasks using a pool of experienced Theravada practitioners from Thailand and Nepal, as well as Vajrayana practitioners from Nepal.

They observed that physiological responses during the Theravada meditation differ significantly from those during the Vajrayana meditation. Theravada meditation produced enhanced parasympathetic activation (relaxation). In contrast, Vajrayana meditation did not show any evidence of parasympathetic activity but showed an activation of the sympathetic system (arousal).

The researchers had also observed an immediate dramatic increase in performance on cognitive tasks following only Vajrayana styles of meditation. They noted that such dramatic boost in attentional capacity is impossible during a state of relaxation. Their results show that Vajrayana and Theravada styles of meditation are based on different neurophysiological mechanisms, which give rise to either an arousal or relaxation response.

Applications of the research findings

The findings from the study showed that Vajrayana meditation can lead to dramatic enhancement in cognitive performance, suggesting that Vajrayana meditation could be especially useful in situations where it is important to perform at one’s best, such as during competition or states of urgency. On the other hand, Theravada styles of meditation are an excellent way to decrease stress, release tension, and promote deep relaxation.

Further research

After seeing that even a single session of Vajrayana meditation can lead to radical enhancements in brain performance, Assoc Prof Kozhevnikov and Dr Amihai will be investigating whether permanent changes could occur after long-term practice. The researchers are also looking at how non-practitioners can benefit from such meditative practices.

Assoc Prof Kozhevnikov said, “Vajrayana meditation typically requires years of practice, so we are also looking into whether it is also possible to acquire the beneficial effects of brain performance by practicing certain essential elements of the meditation. This would provide an effective and practical method for non-practitioners to quickly increase brain performance in times of need.”


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Core Body Temperature Can Be Controlled By The Brain

National University of Singapore

A team of researchers led by Associate Professor Maria Kozhevnikov from the Department of Psychology at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences showed, for the first time, that it is possible for core body temperature to be controlled by the brain. The scientists found that core body temperature increases can be achieved using certain meditation techniques (g-tummo) which could help in boosting immunity to fight infectious diseases or immunodeficiency.

Meditating To Control Body TemperaturePublished in science journal PLOS ONE in March 2013, the study documented reliable core body temperature increases for the first time in Tibetan nuns practising g-tummo meditation. Previous studies on g-tummo meditators showed only increases in peripheral body temperature in the fingers and toes. The g-tummo meditative practice controls “inner energy” and is considered by Tibetan practitioners as one of the most sacred spiritual practices in the region. Monasteries maintaining g-tummo traditions are very rare and are mostly located in the remote areas of eastern Tibet.

The researchers collected data during the unique ceremony in Tibet, where nuns were able to raise their core body temperature and dry up wet sheets wrapped around their bodies in the cold Himalayan weather (-25 degree Celsius) while meditating. Using electroencephalography (EEG) recordings and temperature measures, the team observed increases in core body temperature up to 38.3 degree Celsius. A second study was conducted with Western participants who used a breathing technique of the g-tummo meditative practice and they were also able to increase their core body temperature, within limits.

Applications of the research findings

The findings from the study showed that specific aspects of the meditation techniques can be used by non-meditators to regulate their body temperature through breathing and mental imagery. The techniques could potentially allow practitioners to adapt to and function in cold environments, improve resistance to infections, boost cognitive performance by speeding up response time and reduce performance problems associated with decreased body temperature.

The two aspects of g-tummo meditation that lead to temperature increases are “vase breath” and concentrative visualisation. “Vase breath” is a specific breathing technique which causes thermogenesis, which is a process of heat production. The other technique, concentrative visualisation, involves focusing on a mental imagery of flames along the spinal cord in order to prevent heat losses. Both techniques work in conjunction leading to elevated temperatures up to the moderate fever zone.

Assoc Prof Kozhevnikov explained, “Practicing vase breathing alone is a safe technique to regulate core body temperature in a normal range. The participants whom I taught this technique to were able to elevate their body temperature, within limits, and reported feeling more energised and focused. With further research, non-Tibetan meditators could use vase breathing to improve their health and regulate cognitive performance.”

Further research into controlling body temperature

Assoc Prof Kozhevnikov will continue to explore the effects of guided imagery on neurocognitive and physiological aspects. She is currently training a group of people to regulate their body temperature using vase breathing, which has potential applications in the field of medicine. Furthermore, the use of guided mental imagery in conjunction with vase breathing may lead to higher body temperature increases and better health.

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