Mindfulness studies have long dominated our understanding of the neurobiology of meditation, with practitioners of mindfulness-related meditation taught to be vigilant of the content of their thoughts so as to experience relaxation and stress reduction to improve attention and focus.
A recent study led by Associate Professor Maria Kozhevnikov from the Department of Psychology at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, has discovered a different class of meditative practices that seeks to employ and regulate the state of stress that an individual experiences – rather than to reduce it – to achieve an even more heightened state of focus and attention.
The study is the first to propose a scientific taxonomy of meditative practices that accommodates not only mindfulness-based meditations but also this new class of meditative practices that produces a heightened sense of alertness by stimulating the brain, which is referred to by practitioners as ‘arousal-based’ meditations. It reveals that the latter actually covers a large class of meditative techniques, such as those employed within Vajrayana (Tantric Buddhism), by Sufis of the Islamic tradition (“whirling dervishes”), and by many other traditions, including Hindu Tantra and East Asian martial arts. Prior to the study, the mechanisms of these techniques were unknown.
Assoc Prof Kozhevnikov said that the results of this study also demonstrate, for the first time, that it is possible to stimulate the brain, rather than relax it, to achieve a level of voluntary control over our stress or ‘fight or flight’ response to maximise physical and cognitive performance.
She explained, “These practices push practitioners to their limits, so they can stay focused on the task, being free from any distracting thoughts, even in the most threatening situations. The findings open up a wide range of potential medical and behavioural interventions that not only allow meditation practitioners to regulate stress but also boost physical and attentional capacities upon demand, and even access latent brain resources to prevent cognitive decline.”
The groundbreaking findings have just been published in Current Research in Neurobiology, a leading research journal on neural science.
To read more : NUS