Concentrative Or Nondirective Meditation? Which Does Science Say Works Better?
    By News Staff | May 15th 2014 10:30 AM | 3 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments

    Mindfulness. Zen. Meditation drumming. Chakra. Buddhist and transcendental meditation. It evokes eastern mystics and hip elites in California pretending to to leave their corporeal forms behind and achieve some higher state of being.

    But what about poor stressed-out wretches that can't afford to fly in big-name Yogis? What does the research say? Not much. 

    But researchers would like to change that - fMRI imaging can tell us very little about what is really happening, but it's a start. The authors of a new paper on meditation say that different meditation techniques can actually be divided into two main groups.

    One type is concentrative meditation, where the meditating person focuses attention on his or her breathing or on specific thoughts, and in doing so, suppresses other thoughts.

    The other type may be called nondirective meditation, where the person who is meditating effortlessly focuses on his or her breathing or on a meditation sound, but beyond that the mind is allowed to wander as it pleases. Some modern meditation methods are of this nondirective kind.

    Fourteen people who had extensive experience with the Norwegian technique Acem meditation were tested in an MRI machine. In addition to simple resting, they undertook two different mental meditation activities, nondirective meditation and a more concentrative meditation task.

    The left images show the brain during concentrative meditation, while images to the right show the brain during nondirective meditation. Credit: Norwegian University of Science and Technology

    The research team wanted to test people who were used to meditation because it meant fewer misunderstandings about what the subjects should actually be doing while they lay in the MRI machine.

    Nondirective meditation led to higher activity than during rest in the part of the brain dedicated to processing self-related thoughts and feelings. When test subjects performed concentrative meditation, the activity in this part of the brain was almost the same as when they were just resting.

    "I was surprised that the activity of the brain was greatest when the person's thoughts wandered freely on their own, rather than when the brain worked to be more strongly focused," said Jian Xu, who is a physician at St. Olavs Hospital in Trondheim, Norway and a researcher at the Department of Circulation and Medical Imaging at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. "When the subjects stopped doing a specific task and were not really doing anything special, there was an increase in activity in the area of the brain where we process thoughts and feelings. It is described as a kind of resting network. And it was this area that was most active during nondirective meditation."

    "The study indicates that nondirective meditation allows for more room to process memories and emotions than during concentrated meditation," says Svend Davanger, a neuroscientist at the University of Oslo, and co-author of the study.

    "This area of the brain has its highest activity when we rest. It represents a kind of basic operating system, a resting network that takes over when external tasks do not require our attention. It is remarkable that a mental task like nondirective meditation results in even higher activity in this network than regular rest," says Davanger.

    Most of the research team behind the study does not practice meditation, although three do: Professors Are Holen and Øyvind Ellingsen from NTNU and Professor Svend Davanger from the University of Oslo.

    Acem meditation is a technique that falls under the category of nondirective meditation. Davanger believes that good research depends on having a team that can combine personal experience with meditation with a critical attitude towards results.

    "Meditation is an activity that is practiced by millions of people. It is important that we find out how this really works. In recent years there has been a sharp increase in international research on meditation. Several prestigious universities in the US spend a great deal of money to research in the field. So I think it is important that we are also active," says Davanger.

    Citation: Jian Xu, Alexandra Vik, Inge R. Groote, Jim Lagopoulos, Are Holen, Øyvind Ellingsen, Asta K. Håberg, Svend Davanger, 'Nondirective meditation activates default mode network and areas associated with memory retrieval and emotional processing', Front. Hum. Neurosci., 26 February 2014 doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00086


    While it's a good thing to not inhibit the natural tendency of the mind to flow freely, by adding the right catalyst and proper instruction it can also go beyond thinking and arrive at a level of deep inner silence. One form of meditation that allows that to happen is Transcendental Meditation (TM), which is different from concentration or open monitoring. TM is a third category of meditation known as automatic self-transcending, described in a paper to categorize and organize meditations from Vedic, Buddhist and Chinese traditions, TM also activates the DMN, a self-referential default brain state, suggesting that meditation practice may lead to a foundational or 'ground' state of cerebral functioning, 
    ACEM is an offshoot of Transcendental Meditation, founded by an early student of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who split with the TM organization in 1966:

    As far as I can tell, the purpose of ACEM was to make TM available cheaply and without the "spiritual baggage" that Maharishi Mahesh Yogi insisted was important.

    There are only 5 published studies on ACEM listed in pubmed:

    though has many hits on (ACEM AND meditation) OR "nondirective meditation"

    THere's only two fMRI studies on TM that I am aware of, and while they show some of the same areas of activation (having to do with the resting-state "default mode network" that the ACEM study mentions), there are some differences as well:

    TM researchers assert that TM, like mindfulness, decreases activity of the amygdala, while the article you refer to says that ACEM practice increase the activation of the amygdala, so this is a possible difference between TM and ACEM, despite the attempt to reproduce its effects without strict adherence to the meditation teacher teaching methodology that Maharishi Mahesh Yogi devised, and then tweaked for 50 years.

    Another area where ACEM practice appears to differ from TM is EEG. Again, there is only one published study of the effects of ACEM on EEG, while there are quiet a few on TM, but the main findings for ACEM are:

    Increased theta and alpha EEG activity during nondirective meditation
    Significantly increased theta power was found for the meditation condition when averaged across all brain regions. On closer examination, it was found that theta was significantly greater in the frontal and temporal-central regions as compared to the posterior region. There was also a significant increase in alpha power in the meditation condition compared to the rest condition, when averaged across all brain regions, and it was found that alpha was significantly greater in the posterior region as compared to the frontal region.

    This is in contrast with the results of several studies on TM, where the most consistent finding is that alpha EEG coherence in the frontal regions was higher, while beta EEG power was reduced, and gamma EEG was greatly reduced. EEG coherence in TM has been noted for 35 years, so any researcher conducting research on EEG in a meditation practice meant to reproduce the effects of TM should certainly be familiar with the most consistent EEG finding about TM. The fact that the researchers either were not aware of this, or failed to perform the measure, or at least failed to report the results, is interesting since it is touted over and over again in the research literature as a place where TM is strikingly different than other forms of meditation: TM produces higher levels of alpha EEG coherence in the frontal lobes, and as experience in the practice grows, between the frontal and occipital lobes.


    Another interesting thing to note is that the editors of Science2.0 appear to ignore any and all research on TM, while promoting the research on a TM wannabe. Why is that?

    Another interesting thing to note is that the editors of Science2.0 appear to ignore any and all research on TM, while promoting the research on a TM wannabe. Why is that?
    Congratulations on doing an analysis no one here has ever done - analyzing over 120,000 articles and finding evidence of bias against one type of meditation. You did do that, right? This isn't a meditation study, you can't just make stuff up, you'll have to show actual evidence.