Neurofeedback and Meditation: The New Way of the West
These modern techniques grew out of decades of scientific research and the clinical use of EEG biofeedback (also know as neurofeedback or brainwave training) to train deep states. More recently groundbreaking research through brainmapping, such as Richard Davidson’s work at Keck Labs, University of Wisconsin, has added valuable information that is guiding efforts internationally to better understand and implement these new technologies.
The staff at New Mind Centers has been studying both traditional and modern technologies regarding meditation and other altered states for decades and teaching hundreds how to use these technologies together for transformation and transcendance. We believe that the way westerners will fully come to embrace meditation is through the use of modern technology.
Come join our workshops and lets us teach you how to meditate the new modern way using scientificly based methods and equipment. The New Way of the West is dawning.
Training Meditational States With Neurofeedback In A Clinical Setting
By Richard Soutar, Ph.D.
The definition of meditation is problematic in that various authors in the west may employ the term based on either its western or eastern meaning without making a clear distinction regarding their definition of the term. The meaning of the term used in this chapter will be derived from the eastern concept of the term as it has manifested in western experience. There have been arguments in the past that we in the west do not understand the writings of the east and misinterpret meanings and definitions of terms related to meditation. I believe that enough westerners have studied and meditated under eastern masters at this point, over a century, to have clarified the basic terms as they relate to tacit experience. In addition to this experience, a considerable amount of scientific data has been acquired on both eastern and western meditators to provide an objective framework for a fine analysis of the reported tacit experiences of both cultural paradigms.
Meditation is usually associated with a religious tradition of some kind, although there have been arguments regarding whether Zen is technically a religion (Austin, 1998). It is interesting to note the pattern of development of Buddhist meditation techniques and styles as it has moved through various cultures over time. Although the symbols and terms often change, the technique remains essentially the same. In fact a close analysis of Hindu meditation techniques, which predate Buddhism, reveal profound similarities as well. Many authors who have surveyed the variety of religious techniques called meditation, such as Daniel Goleman (1988), have found they all have a great deal in common. Herbert Benson (2000) employed physiological measures to observe meditative techniques of a variety of religions and found a common physiological pattern as well as a common technique.
The most highly refined ancient system of meditation we have records of emerged first in the Hindu tradition (Mascaro,1965). These techniques were well established prior to the advent of Buddhism or Christianity. The culmination of this tradition was consolidated in the Yogic Aphorisms of Patanjali in the first century (AD). The Buddha, Siddartha Gautama, had studied these techniques in depth, found them unsatisfactory, and refined them in a manner leading to his enlightenment in the form of a special state of consciousness he named Nirvana (Rahula, 1959). The Buddhists developed several documents or scriptures around the theory and practice of meditation and these ideas migrated into most of the Asian cultures, each of which added its own symbols and refinements. It may have found its purest form in the Japanese form of Buddhism known as Zen. This religion, if we can call it that, eschews all written scripture and focuses entirely on techniques supported by oral tradition. This is fairly common in earlier civilizations, but upon close inspection it will be found that most of the Hindu and Buddhist meditational traditions also rely heavily on oral tradition and direct transmission and actually leave the details out of their written documents. This practice appears to be due more to the fact that it is almost impossible to teach meditation through written instruction then to any secrecy issues or lack of literacy.
Herbert Benson ( 2000) may be our modern western version of Bodhidharma in that he has scientifically studied these techniques, stripped them of their cultural trappings, and provided scientific measures to explain the mechanisms behind them and clearly and simply operationalize his findings. In a similar manner Banquet (1973) also has studied in depth the modern Hindu version of meditation as it has migrated west in the form of the Marharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation, or TM as it has become known. When compared, these various Hindu and Buddhist techniques, as they have filtered into the west, are at root almost identical. It is clear, however, from the extensive translations on meditation, that these techniques are in many cases only the fundamentals. There are clearly many more techniques, some claiming to be advanced methods for achieving states of awareness for which we have no comparable categories or words in the west (Goleman, 1988; Austin, 1998).
The goal of meditation has been defined differently for the various traditions it is embedded in. The Hindu perspective presents meditation as one of the key methods for achieving transcendence of the human experience and union with the fundamental source of the universe (Noss, 1968; Mascaro, 1965). The Buddhist goal is more in accord with modern psychology in that it seeks to reduce suffering and dissatisfaction. This goal is arrived at not by achieving a normal state, but a supernormal state called Nirvana. This is because Buddhists are not just interested in reducing suffering, but in the cessation of all suffering. To do this requires a fundamental experience and insight into the nature of existence (Rahula, 1959; Kamalashila, 1995, Dali Lama, 2001). Psychologists are not so ambitious in this area. The key issues in the Diagnostic Manual are level of suffering, statistical rarity of behavior, and interference of the behavior with daily life (DSM IV). Psychologists are interested in integrating individuals back into the social mainstream, whereas the Buddhists are unconcerned with this dimension of remediation. Never-the-less, the mutual goal of understanding mind and the reduction of suffering suggests some value may be mutually discovered between approaches. This has been clear to hundreds of researchers and specialists in these areas. More recently toward this end, Richard Davison at Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin has been investigating various states achieved by Tibetan practitioners of meditation with considerable success.
The movement of western science into the domain of meditation holds great promise. Physiological states that confer considerable mental and physical benefits on practitioners have been identified. The possibility of identifying specific states and their EEG correlates holds the potential promise of being able to train these states more clearly and effectively utilizing modern technology.
The Features of Meditative States
Two of the best models of the progression of meditative states are the Buddhist and the Hindu (Goleman, 1988). In the Buddhist tradition there is a particular emphasis on extending the meditative experience into everyday life and this is achieved through a technique known as Mindfulness. It was this feature of Buddhist practice that offset it in particular from the Hindu approach. Siddartha reportedly found that the achievement of the states his Hindu practice culminated in were wanting in that the individual found himself right back where he started once the particular state was exited (Goleman,1988).
The Hindu model is best demonstrated in the Aphorisms of Patanjali (Isherwood & Prabhavananda, 1969) (sources date it somewhere between 4 th century B.C. and 4 th century A.D.). These are a codification of techniques and theory regarding the achievement of various states of consciousness leading up to the ultimate form of Samadhi in which one experiences an ultimate state of being. The Aphorisms begin with discussions regarding physical health practices and moral conduct which this tradition finds essential to the achievement of a stability in the physical world that is conducive to the practice of exercises and techniques leading to these altered states of consciousness. Once this daily continuity is established the goal is to practice and gain control over the five basic kinds of thought waves. This is done in stages starting with concentration and progressing through Samayama, Savitarka Samadhi, Nirvichara Samadhi and finally Nirvikalpa Samadhi.
The Visuddhimagga according to Goleman (1988) is “the traditional recipe book for meditation” in the Buddhist tradition. Although Buddha lived in the 6 th century B.C., it was oral tradition which sustained his teachings until they were first committed to writing in the 1 st century B.C (Rahula, 1959). The Visuddhimagga is part of this written “Pali” tradition and describes the techniques and details relating to Buddhist meditational technology. In this text the principles and practices are described in fine detail. Never-the-less, the assistance of a guide who has first hand experience navigating this journey is recognized as essential among Buddhists.
Buddhist approaches revolve around a dual approach of utilizing both concentration techniques and insight techniques (Rahula, 1959; Goleman, 1988; Kamalashila, 1995; Dali Lama, 2001). The concentration techniques are very similar to and probably derived from ancient yogic techniques as eventually defined in the work of Patanjali. The stages in these techniques are referred to as “jhanas.”There are eight levels of jhanas after access state. Access state is similar to the achievement of dhyana in Patanjali’s approach.
The path of insight in Buddhist tradition is meant to take concentration and focus it on the dilemmas of outward everyday experience. Mindfulness is the first step in which the practitioner applies concentration to perceptual experience. In mindfulness the practitioner develops self-awareness to a point where he is constantly aware of all thoughts and feelings from moment to moment. With the guidance of traditional Buddhist wisdom he is able to gain insight into the dilemma of suffering and human existence. These insights occur in categories comprising rough stages of development extending through Reflection, Pseudonirvana, Realization, Effortless Insight, Nirvana, and finally Nirodh.
In both traditions, understanding that attachment to sense objects and thought objects is a major impediment to Liberation and that disengaging from these attachments is the key to full Enlightenment (Rahula, 1959). This requires conscious and intentional confirmation through direct experience of the lack of fulfillment that results from pursuit of these attachments. Discussion regarding attachment, karma, bondage, and liberation is useful, but primarily inspirational in function. One may commit to memory and master the meaning of the sutras, but remain deluded and ignorant from this perspective. It is through direct tacit experience of the fruitlessness of pursuing a path of thought or worldly action to obtain some type of salvation that an individual begins to experience the truth of the matter. This tacit truth leads to a new understanding or insight regarding the nature of being in this dimension. This approach leads intuitively to concentration and mindfulness. As it turns out, these are distinct categories of psychophysiological states with specific neurophysiological and electrophysiological markers (DeLuca & Daley, 2003; Banquet, 1973; Dunn et al, 1999; Goleman, 2003; Benson, 2000).
Herbert Benson (1975) was among the first, and certainly the most aggressive, researchers to investigate the phenomena of meditation in a consistent transcultural manner utilizing a scientific approach and modern instruments of measurement. The field of psychophysiology owes a huge debt to him and the risks he took with regard to his career as a Harvard academician. What Benson discovered as he measured the EEG and took peripheral measures of autonomic function, was that there was a common signature to these various diverse religious approaches to meditation and prayer. He referred to it as a hypometabolic state. The unusual ability of humans to achieve this state with clear psychophysiological markers had profound implications for physical and mental health. As an M.D., Benson immediately recognized the potential significance of this discovery for society. Benson extracted the basic techniques required for achieving this state from their religious and cultural trappings and presented it to the west as a solution to psycho physiological disorders, which the AMA by its own reckoning had determined were responsible for 60-70% of all doctor visits.
What Benson apparently had not fully realized was that he had only scratched the surface and had presented a means to achieving “access” state. This, however, was still a tremendous achievement. Unfortunately the social order latched onto it as another brief fad reported in the media, although his books still sell well. As those of us in the field of psychophysiology know full well, anything that takes practice will always fall short when in competition with the drugs that are the quick path of salvation in our modern society; even if that salvation is only temporary.
In summary, it is clear that there is a common underlying group of techniques that lead to specific psychophysiological states that are not necessarily fully contingent upon a religious and cultural perspective in order to be achieved. The techniques are easy to practice and the psychophsiological consequences are clearly observable and measurable. The benefits, in terms of both physical and psychological consequences, are also easily observable and measurable. Meditation has been more researched than many realize. T.M., the group Benson had originally studied and out of which his Relaxation Response techniques were developed, has been the subject of over 400 scientific studies from international sources. All of these studies conclude that the mental, physical, and psychological changes that occur in people from in engaging in this process are profound. Research grants for this area have been surprisingly lacking, but given our cultural bias for quick and easy solutions to our problems this should not be that surprising. In the next section we will explore what the researchers have found regarding the measures associated with these states and the benefits uncovered by research to date.
Research On Meditation
Although the more advanced meditative states may still be beyond the measurement capabilities of our present technology, past research has made it clear that we are capable of measuring these states very well up to the point of access state or samadhi (Austin, 1998). The achievement of these basic meditative states is significant enough in their ramifications for mental and physical health as to make them worthy of measuring and operationalizing. In fact Benson (2000) found that just entering a basic hypometabolic state on a daily basis had profound effects on mental and physical health. So let us review the basic markers or features of these hypometabolic or meditative states and discern what to look for in those clients we might want to introduce to this technology as we train them to enter these states. This will help determine the methods that can be employed to teach clients these states.
There has been much discussion over the ages in Hindu and Buddhist tradition regarding the importance of correct posture and breathing to achieve deep meditative states. Some of the requirements and claims are exotic and based in superstitions. In reviewing the literature James Austin (1998) finds that assuming a lotus position verses sitting in a chair does not make a difference with regard to achieving the states we can measure. He further notes that focusing the attention on a repetitive stimulus facilitates the production of alpha. So sitting quietly in a chair and focusing the attention on the same stimulus over and over will generate higher levels of alpha than engaging in other activities. Benson confirmed this and indicated that sitting quietly in a chair and counting breaths, like Zen monks did, was fundamental to achieving the relaxation response.
Austin (1998 ), reviewing the research on meditation and breathing, also notes that breathing rate slows from the norm of 12-18 breaths per minute to 4-6 breaths per minute. There is a lengthening of the exhalation period and the inhalation period drops from 43% to 25% of the breathing cycle. An important part of the exhalation extension is an increase in the pause between exhalation and the next inhalation. During this period the breath may become briefly suspended. In some cases for several minutes in advanced meditators. This is interesting as Austin notes that breathing out quiets the activity of brain cells while breathing in increases activity. This suggests a form of neural silence is being cultivated (Adam Crane and I discussed this in our book Mindfitness). There is an overall reduction in oxygen consumption which is different from sleep. Consumption drops 8% after several hours of sleep but 10-20% after the first three minutes in meditation.
Wallace (1970) was the first to comprehensively investigate and report the physiological aspect of meditation. He noted a decreased oxygen consumption as well as a decreased carbon dioxide elimination process. He reported decreased respiration rate, decreased heart rate, increased basal skin resistance, increased intensity of alpha activity in the frontal and central regions, episodes of rhythmical EEG theta activity in the frontal region and decreased arterial lactate levels. Benson (1975) observed overall reduced autonomic arousal as well and stressed the significance of a reduction in blood lactate as it is considered an index of overall autonomic distress. This later measure is important because it is highly correlated with anxiety when it is high. Benson (2000) and Cade (1989) both reported reduced SCR, a measure of galvanic skin response and reduced EMG, a measure of somatic tone or muscle tension. These measures are also greater in higher states of arousal and anxiety. Green (1970) noted increased peripheral vascularity, also a measure of relaxation. Austin (1998 ) reports serotonin increases.
Changes in EEG are also striking. Kasamatsu & Hirai, (1966), who measured the EEG of a group of Zen monks with a variety of meditative experience in terms of years meditating, found the first important change was a dramatic increase in alpha amplitude 60-70uv (this is with eyes open). This alpha is highly synchronous. Over the course of the meditation period this alpha increased in amplitude and slowed in frequency. Initially this alpha was dominant in the posterior regions but became progressively more prominent in the anterior region as the meditation continued. In advanced meditators the alpha reached very high amplitudes and actually slowed into the theta frequencies (6-7hz). Then rhythmical trains of theta come and go. In comparing these patterns to controls who are drifting into sleep or in a hypnotic trance, the pattern was found to be uniquely different. The authors divided the phenomena of meditation into four categories reflecting deeper levels of attainment.
Studies of eyes closed TM meditators uncovered another interesting EEG component of meditation. Banquet (1973) found similar patterns to the Japanese study with increased alpha amplitudes and slowing followed by rhythmic trains of theta. These patterns are highly synchronized across the scalp. Rather than coherence dropping as occurs in sleep, coherence increases, especially in the frontal region. Banquet also notes the theta is very regular, not the usual irregular theta of drowsiness. What is of interest in Banquets study is that during the third stage of meditation (Banquet also identified four levels) smooth 20hz beta spindles begin to appear. These are distinctly different from the spindling that occurs prior to sleep. This had been identified in other studies in adepts prior to their entrance in to samadhi. The beta shifts to continuous 30 and 60hz sinusoidal waves rippling over the rhythmic theta. This beta pattern emerges from the left anterior region.
Symmetry and coherence are also important measures of EEG that reflect changes in the brain with respect to time series analysis. Both Westcott (1973) and later Cade (1989) reported from England that individuals engaged in meditative states demonstrated balanced levels of power across the spectrum with respect to both hemispheres. The progressive increases in coherence as meditation progresses that was noted by Banquet and others are synchronized with the breath suspension periods characteristic of deeper theta stages (Badawi et al., 1984). Recently phase was also investigated by Herbert et al (2003). They reported enhanced long-range EEG alpha phase synchronization during meditation. This indicates that not only is coherence high, but that there is zero phase angle between sites and confirming that global phase synchronization is a unique feature of this state. Furthermore, this same level of synchronization was not noted in other frequency bands.
Another study done by Dunn et al (1999) indicates that there is a distinct difference between the EEG of individuals who are relaxing versus individuals who are meditating. This study indicated that the key difference was high levels of alpha activity focused around the parietal region at Pz. Individuals in a relaxed sate had no such EEG pattern. Some as yet unpublished research done by Richard Davidson and reported by Daniel Goleman (2003) done at Keck Labs at the University of Wisconsin also indicates meditative states have unique signatures. An advanced Tibetan Buddhist meditator approved by the Dali Lama as representative of the Tibetan tradition was recorded performing three different types of meditation using (f)MRI and qEEG. Results indicated that measurements indicated that each technique resulted in a unique state that had a distinct metabolic and qEEG signature. Another recent study supportive of this was a qEEG and LORETA analysis of another Tibetan monk which indicated that three types of meditative techniques similar to the ones reviewed at Keck also had distinct signatures (DeLuca & Daly, 2003).
Finally, Newberg and D’Aquili (2001) reported SPECT scan analysis of an advanced meditator showing significant hypofusion of the parietal region around Pz during advanced meditative states as well. All of these recent investigations indicate that meditative states are clearly distinct from relaxation and distinct states in their own right. In addition, these studies determined that concentrative meditation shows a unique EEG and blood perfusion pattern at PZ in particular. This area, according to Newberg is the orientation association area that has the key function of discriminating self form other. Both the EEG and hypofusion measures indicate that this area is highly underactivated in meditation and may in part explain the profound sense of oneness that is common to this experience.
The benefits of meditation are diverse and fairly well established at this point. Much of the research comes from a great variety of studies (Benson, 2000 ). Meditation reduces state and trait anxiety, enhances serotonin levels, reduces blood lactate levels, hypertension, insomnia, improves cognitive performance, enhances memory, results in reductions in moodiness, and diminished cravings for food as well as other mediums of the addictive process. With regard to the last item, it should be noted in passing that Penniston derived his alpha-theta protocol for dealing with addictive disorders from workshops presented by Elmer Green (Kulkosky, 1996). Green utilized theta training at O1 as a protocol because he learned from laboratory experiments that high theta at this location was a unique signature of a meditational techniques he had learned in graduate school (Green, 1993). In other words, we are already using this technology in neurofeedback without openly acknowledging its source.
Cognitive Changes and Therapeutic Applications
The work of Aaron Beck and Martin Seligman is widely appreciated in psychology today and can be found in every psychology 101 textbook in publication. Yet it is amazing how poorly this research appears to be applied until very recently. As it turns out, meditation is an excellent vehicle for application of these principles. In addition, neurofeedback can effectively combine both of these paradigms in a manner that makes them easier to operationalize in a clinical setting. In fact, many forms of neurofeedback can be interpreted as a form of meditational training, especially alpha-theta training. As was pointed out above, alpha-theta training was indirectly derived from meditational training. The details of this dimension of application of neurofeedback can only be briefly summarized and superficially covered within this chapter but they will be further explicated in a forthcoming book.
Martin Seligman’s (1975) research uncovered the fact that mammals begin to destabilize physiologically when exposed to double-bind situations. They begin to behave like depressed human beings and frequently die if not removed from the double-bind. Aaron Beck (1979) took this insight one step further and applied it to the cognitive realm. Neo-behaviorism and the cognitive revolution soon followed in psychology. Beck found that humans responded to cognitive double-binds as well as situational ones with depression and a unique pattern of “automatic thinking.” Presently Beck finds these patterns of thinking in individuals with anxiety as well. What is of even greater interest is that recent research suggests that depression may be an end stage to chronic anxiety (Davidson, 2000). The implications of this is that individuals respond to double-bind situations, both physical and cognitive, with growing anxiety. This anxiety over time often triggers a protective response in the organism that comes in the form of depression (Zacharo, 1991). There is considerable clinical and research to support this perspective (Beck, 1979; Davidson, 2000; Davidson et al, 2000; Kaplan, 2002). It has been suggested that this trigger is a consequence of the exhaustion of the central nervous system. I can recall John Gilbert having worked with 114 cases of depression and reporting at the SNR meeting (2000) that the lifting of the depression in all cases resulted in the manifestation of either severe anger or fear (anxiety). In almost every clinical case we have had over the past eight years we have seen anxiety emerge as depression lifts both in terms of symptoms and in the qEEG analysis. There is insufficient room in this chapter to explicate the details, however in short we usually see a shift from excessive slowing in the left hemisphere to increased activation in the right as well as a drop in slow wave amplitude as the Beck inventories indicate a reduction in severity of symptoms. This can manifest in many patterns in the qEEG and is easily missed unless one is looking for it. Based on the research of Davidson et al (1999) and others, this is exactly what we should expect to see.
Recently the work of Jeffrey Schwartz (2002) has indicated that worry associated with OCD can be reduced or eliminated using techniques drawn from Buddhist meditation. The key feature is disengagement from discursive thinking involving fearful thoughts. It is well known that individuals with OCD engage obsessively in specific categories of disturbing thoughts. These too are automatic thoughts, but an extreme form. Schwartz has even identified the “worry circuit,” an anterior cingulate network interfacing the orbital frontal region with the amygdala, in the brain that is responsible for this loss of control over thought. It is interesting to note that Demasio (1999) reported that automatic thoughts can operate extensively below the threshold of awareness. In fact a great deal of the thought process occurs below the threshold of awareness. This makes sense from what we know of the pattern of learning in humans. We tend to routinize any learned sequence and perform the routines with a minimal conscious effort (Posner & Raichle, 1994). Repetitive patterns of thought consequently become background neural activity.
When alpha training individuals, it is common to see them desynchronize into beta and report initially that they did not know what they were thinking. This is because discursive thought often involves a loss of self-awareness. In fact it is this loss of awareness that meditation seeks to resolve. With further practice individuals begin to become aware of these thoughts. They are in fact automatic thoughts that fall into the categories described by Beck. They are triggering amygdalic responses in the limbic system that result in chronic autonomic arousal. This is because the amygdala cannot distinguish external threat stimuli from internal threat stimuli (Le Doux, 1996).
According to LeDoux the frontal cortex’s primary response to the amygdala’s stimulation is increased activity ie dsynchronization and increased beta due to higher levels of arousal and processing. Of course the hallmark of individuals with anxiety is elevated beta. In fact, over activation of the left frontal region has been associated with worry, the right frontal region with high arousal and panic (Nitscke al, 1997), and the right parietal with rumination (Davidson,1999). Le Doux observes that the left dorsolateral frontal increases in activity are likely related to short term memory networks over-engaged in the worry process. He notes this may be one way of gating the short term memory area so that the driving conditioned fear stimuli in the parahippocampal regions cannot enter conscious awareness and generate panic states. Sterman (1995) demonstrates how this pattern of desychronization without sufficient resynchronization between tasks can tire individuals and reduce performance levels. Memory and problem solving skills degrade resulting in less effective interactions with the environment. Over time this results in reduced social accuracy and reduced access to social resources as well as increased avoidance behavior.
The consequence of excessive and chronic over arousal and worry also increases in cortisol levels in the bloodstream that damage the hippocampus (McEwen, 1987; Kaplan, 2002). Not only does this result in loss of short term memory function but also depresses immune function as the hippocampus is a key switching mechanism for global immune system function. Research in the past has established significant reductions in immunoglobulin A (Stone et al, 1987; Cohen & Herbert, 1996), the first line of immune defense, in the face of even moderate distress. More recently the work of Davidson et al (2003) continues to support these findings. Fortunately, withdrawal from stressful stimuli also results in neurogenesis in the hippocampus and a return of memory and immune function. This observation is also supportive of the notion that the body may have intrinsic mechanisms to reduce exposure to excessive negative stimulation and avoidant behavior due to left frontal slowing and depression may be a primary mechanism for this protective process.
Given the above considerations it makes sense that engaging in an exercise that reduces activity in the worry circuit and calms the central nervous system would be as effective as any medication if the individual had learned control of their CNS through this exercise. The primary technique in meditation is the continuous observation of a stimulus without digression into discursive thinking. This results in growing synchronous alpha amplitudes across cortical networks. If this activity is practiced long enough, a growing neural silence begins to emerge which Adam Crane (2000) appropriately refers to as profound attention. The brain becomes increasingly hypercoupled and begins to drift into sleep. However, with efforts to maintain significant levels of arousal, for instance by maintaining an erect posture, sleep spindles fail to emerge and alpha power increases. The individual maintains awareness at increasingly lower levels of arousal.
Demasio (2002) has hypothesized that consciousness emerges in layers, like an onion skin, as arousal (the RAS networks) energizes layers of brain networks from the brain stem upward. He believes that the most primitive levels of awareness begin in the trigeminal plane. This is just above the brain stem. It is likely that generators in these regions operate in the delta frequencies. John (1999) found that consciousness seemed to emerge around 3-4hz in individuals waking from anesthesia. It may be that maintaining enough arousal to experience these more primitive levels of consciousness could result in novel experiences of more basic forms of awareness covered up by a more normally active cortex. Consciousness at this level may interact with the implicate order in a different way than we are used to experiencing. This primitive experience of awareness may be more unitive in nature. To be able to consciously access it may indicate a new level of organism self-regulation that involves greater top down integration.
Regardless of the true mechanisms and metaphysical implications of the meditative process the 40 years of research has clearly established its validity as a unique state of hypometabolic functioning distinct from sleep or hypnotic trance and having a unique set of associated states with unique EEG signatures. This suggests that neurofeedback should be an effective way of training these states and verifying their attainment. In fact several people have been doing this for over a decade including Adam Crane, Les Femi, myself, Anna Wise, and Maxwell Cade to name a few. I have used EEG Biofeedback to train individuals with mental disorders to meditate for over half a decade utilizing the research mentioned in this chapter and with excellent results. I would argue that those who use alpha-theta training have been doing it as well. I have found that this type of training is especially effective with individuals with anxiety, depression, headaches, and fibromyalgia. In fact it is often more effective than neurofeedback alone.
In my extensive dealings with individuals with anxiety disorders I have found that the most difficult cases could train their alpha up to some degree but their beta went up as well and they could not train their beta down. This lack of plasticity I interpreted as a consequence of a long standing neural habit grounded in a physiological pattern resulting in a structural change. Such patterns have emerged in other research (Schwartz, 2002). This neural neohomeostasis requires time and the exercise of new inhibitory patterns to alter. LeDoux (1996 ) notes that fear response do not extinguish because the responses are lost, but rather because new inhibitory networks develop to control them. In spite of extensive practice, many severely anxious clients develop this ability to inhibit beta very slowly. I have found that teaching them the relaxation response techniques while monitoring them allows me to better direct the instruction and outcome. In most cases clients are able to reduce their beta and increase their alpha more effectively with neuromonitoring of their EEG during Relaxation Response training than through EEG biofeedback alone. In fact, the two techniques appear to be synergistic.
As a consequence of this I asked Dave Siever at Mind Alive to build me an inexpensive hand held analogue alpha trainer for clients to take home with them. Interestingly enough, Richard Glade found out about the device and began successfully using it to help train novices in Tibetan Meditation techniques. Since that time interest has been growing.
Anna Wise has developed extensively the technique of neuromonitoring. Using Cade’s mind mirror, Anna conducts group workshops where everyone is hooked up to the mind mirror and she switches from participant to participant as she takes them through exercises meant to generate specific component bands of frequencies. In this process she helps teach them how to access different levels of consciousness and shape their brainwave patterns into an awakened mind state similar to the one Cade (1997) found in his research. Anna is able to harness group dynamics to help individuals past barriers to growth they might not normally be able to overcome as quickly working on their own. This is somewhat reflected in Buddhist tradition where meditators frequently practice in groups because it is felt that the resulting atmosphere aids the meditation process.
Clients can be trained to meditate using both neurofeedback and more traditional techniques and reap tremendous benefits from the process. The two approaches appear to be synergistic and often work better together, especially for westerners who appear to need external aids to assist them in understanding the process and how it impacts them. Finally, this approach can be harnessed for group work in a very powerful way that helps individuals overcome difficult blocks to growth as well as give therapists a means of monitoring how effective their group process is from moment to moment.
Assessing clients to determine if they are appropriate for this approach is a crucial first step in employment of this technology. There are many cultural and superstitious barriers to using these technologies in a therapeutic setting. Many individuals from various conservative religious backgrounds define meditation as distinct from prayer and as either suspect or dangerous to engage in. They may have the same perspective on brainwave training. Usually it is not worth the effort to attempt to engage them in either approach. On the other end of the spectrum are individuals who assume either approach is silly and pointless. They consider themselves very practical people who stay close to the facts and “know better” than to waste their time on such an intangible process. This latter category often include many “hard nosed” professionals who are quick with opinions and slow to read the research. We have found it equally a waste of time to attempt to gain their interest. The type of client most suitable, unfortunately, are intelligent, educated and open minded people who are generally open to novel approaches to problem solving in most areas of their lives. It is extremely helpful if they have any prior exposure to yoga, the experience of meditation, or altered states. Even if their disorder is extreme and long standing we find they respond to these technologies very well.
Initially we have them undergo a qEEG in order to examine the distribution of their EEG and determine if neurofeedback alone or NFB guided meditation is a better approach. We avoid using the latter approach on individuals with indications of TBI, ADD, or similar disorders involving excessive slow wave activity. Pure unipolar depressives are rare, but they would constitute another category to avoid. Since most individuals with depression also have active or latent anxiety disorders underlying the depression process, they are acceptable candidates.
During the first session we establish baseline measures of EEG amplitude in the various frequency bands we plan to work with based on their brain map. We also select the initial site of training. Often we train along the midline somewhere to avoid asymmetry issues and allow the brain to make its own decisions during the training process in matters of coherence and symmetry. Since the research suggests that access state involves an equal distribution between hemispheres of component bands across the frequency spectrum, the midline is a good selection. Much of the research suggests Pz as an important site and consequently we will begin there unless there are contraindications. This is also the sight where Bill Scott does most of his alpha-theta training. Another reason is that the research suggests that the initially emerging global EEG patterns first appear in the posterior region at each stage and move forward to the anterior region.
We begin training individuals with a 9-11hz band of alpha and attempt to get the clients to exceed their baseline readings with respect to magnitude. We train them to breath from their diaphragms and monitor their breathing. As they become acclimated to this over several sessions we begin teaching them to increase the duration of their exhalation phase and particularly to focus on the space between in breath and out breath. However, this an initial phase in the training process and we do not really heavily emphasize the breathing until the neuromonitoring phases.
We initially use proportional feedback as Kamiya’s research (1969) indicates it is most effective for training alpha. Once they have achieved sufficient amplitude of alpha, we may switch over to dichotomous feedback and a broader band of 8-12hz. We train in ten minute intervals initially, based on Kamiya’s findings (1969) and the general learning literature which suggests most people have difficulty sustaining focus after seven minutes. Over time we extend that period to twenty minutes as the client demonstrates extended capacity to focus. During this period there is usually much discussion on the nature of discursive thought and the many topics on their mind that lead them into it and away from focusing on the training. We also point out constantly during their training how their alpha amplitude falls when they engage in discursive thought.
Once the client is able to exceed baseline, we focus progressively on posture, muscle tone EMG, and SCR as necessary, as well as heart rate. This often assists them in achieving higher amplitudes of alpha. The client is able to see from the training graphs the impact these other domains of practice have on their overall performance and are often inspired to practice them more in their daily routine.
Eventually we begin five minute trials with the feedback turned off. This is the neuromonitoring phase. During this period we review and emphasize the relaxation response techniques developed by Benson. As they demonstrate a greater capacity to increase alpha and reduce beta we focus progressively more on their breathing pattern, getting them to focus on the space between their breathing. We next expand to ten minute trials and begin them on training at home once a day for ten minutes.
During the neuromonitoring phase it is possible to sculpt the EEG patterns using techniques developed by Anna Wise or add visualizations practiced in Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Knowing the clients history is useful here. A practitioner can implement healing visualizations for those with somatic problems, compassionate visualizations for those with anger issues, etc. Many of the Tibetan techniques use the period toward the end of the meditation to implement these visualizations as it is a period of peak concentration. Recently in France, in a research projected directed by Benson, they have begun exploring the extraordinary amount of physical heat that meditators are able to generate using this technique. Tibetan meditators can dry out wet sheets of fabric placed on their bare backs while sitting outdoors in freezing temperatures. Clearly this would indicate it is an effective point in the meditation to focus on other visualization.
During the neuromonitoring period clients tend to experience successive insights into their own attachments or life agendas. One client from our clinic was suffering from panic attacks and realized that she was always trying to make things come out perfect. Once this insight emerged her training abruptly improved and she discontinued having panic attacks. As clients progress they may have more and more subtle insights. As they become more self-aware, they recognize they are entertaining particular automatic thoughts without realizing it. These thoughts are often key to uncovering their personal agendas. These agendas are often grounded in childhood conclusions regarding fundamental issues of life which have never been reviewed with adult awareness (Cozolino,2002). Once they come into awareness they can be uncovered in many compartments of everyday life and inhibited. This reintegration process takes continued mindfulness throughout the day. In this way the individuals life is progressively transformed. As they learn this techniques they can begin to do it on their own without clinical support. The stuff of everyday life becomes a vehicle for ongoing insight.
The release of energy bound up in cortical processing involving worry, rumination, and hyperarousal is considerable. Clients begin to feel physically more energetic, lighter and stronger. Health improves as previously suppressed immune functions come back on line. Memory begins to return as neurogenisis occurs in the hippocampus region. Clients sleep better as circadian cycles normalize. They begin to report that they are less reactive to stimuli that they usually consider dangerous or negative in some manner.
It has been recently commented upon in the field of psychology (Elkins,1999) that clinicians often find clients becoming more spiritual in orientation as they come to the end of their therapy sessions. At this point many therapists direct their clients to other experts in faith. For those neurotherapists who have the inclination and resources this is an opportunity to harness the latest scientific insights into the neuropsychological of behavior and consciousness to work with the client who wishes and explore beyond the average level of integrative functioning. The clients that come to our office specifically for meditative training will often be engaged to pursue this “Process” deeper with us as clinicians. During this period we begin to explore more fundamental issues of suffering and attachment. These may include closer examination of the thoughts that still intrude during meditation, the finer points of managing destructive emotions, fundamental issues of attachment surrounding pleasure, fear, and death. Once they become skilled at this process they will go on to continue it naturally and seek out others also engaged in the process to share their insights with. Ultimately this leads to integration with a loose community of friends dedicated to higher goals relating to the most fundamental insights regarding life and the human condition.
Adam Crane and I met because we had read much of the same literature and through our life experiences came to the same conclusions regarding meditation, EEG biofeedback, and higher state of consciousness. We wrote our book “Mindfitness” to express our view point. One of the most important segments is on the Newtonian causal bias, often referred to as scientific materialism, that still pervades science even though it has been established as erroneous (Soutar, 1996). Stanislove Grof (1993) devotes a good portion of his book “The Holotropic Mind” brilliantly to the same issue. This erroneous perspective limit’s the questions we ask in research and impedes science. Science is the search for scientific truth and holds all scientific truth to be temporary. Unfortunately many scientists never learned the difference between scientific truth and absolute truth in their college methods class. They believe scientific truth is able to replace absolute truth. There is little support for that conclusion. According to all of the most recent thinking in the field of the epistemology of science, we can only conclude that a hypothesis (a tentative axiom or postulate) is probably not wrong. When scientists like Tim Leary, John Lilly, Richard Alpert, and Elmer Green encountered tacit metaphysical truth they often abandoned science in the pursuit of their own vision. Science provided them a springboard for their plunge into this arena, and they were aware of the consequences of the transition they made in moving from the domain of scientific truth to the domain of absolute truth. I believe they saw themselves more as point men trying to send back advanced notice of potential domains for exploration. Their scientific peers saw this as a fall from grace rather than early retirement. All scientists are driven by the pursuit of truth. There is a fear in the scientific community of flying too close to the sun and engaging metaphysics again. Unfortunately for those of weak heart quantum mechanics has already thrust us back into metaphysical debate (Hawking, 1988).
The field of neurotherapy feeds off of the latest research in neuropsychological and physics. This is our dilemma. We apply the latest research in a manner which most of the researchers providing us with this information have not even seriously considered. They cannot see us or hear us. We exist in the liminal realm of the cutting edge. What is most difficult is that this realm now embraces the point where science is trying to determine if the boundary between scientific truth and absolute truth is truly asmpyptotic. In our clinics where we walk this razors edge and the impossible seems to happen everyday, it requires great honesty and courage to continue the work. It may still be a hundred years before we begin to fully understand the mechanisms we are just beginning to employ. The circumstances force us to consider how far we can take our clients with this technology. This is the dilemma that faced Elmer Green and John Lilly. Peniston and Kulkosky have already crossed the line. We can hide the facts but we cannot take that back. Other civilizations have explored the realms we are encountering without benefit of the scientific process. This does not entirely disqualify their observations. Green, Peniston and Kulkosky, perhaps not entirely with full intention, have already proved the point. The most evolved and codified traditions of investigation in this realm can be surprisingly sophisticated at times. Benson, Davidson, Ekman and others are already establishing this empirically. I believe it is our job to pay close attention to their work and do what we do best- operationalize their findings for the benefit of those who suffer in our social order. We have the research, technology, and moral imperative to propel us along this trajectory.
Employing a meditational model for neurotherapy has powerful support in the research to date. It is one of many competing models. In my opinion a good neurotherapist has many tools in his bag, has learned how to use them, and employs them with the intent of “doing no harm.” This chapter has attempted to provide a scientifically supported rational and method for employing a meditational model in the clinical setting. It is not always appropriate with all clients and with all situations. When the right occasion arrives, however, it is a very useful method to have at hand.