Neural Activity, Physiological Measures, and Meditation

brain wave cpsBrain waves indicate the person’s level of arousal, that is, the active mode of thinking and doing, or the individual’s state of consciousness. There are four recognised brain wave states. It is curious that traditionally in Yoga it is said also that there are four states of consciousness – though they are regarded with quite the opposite values to what you might expect!

Traditionally, the lowest value is the active thinking state, a little higher up comes dreaming sleep, higher still is deep dreamless sleep, and after that comes the transcendent state, the Turiya state, a state of pure consciousness.


The Recognised Brain States

Below is a brief description of the four measurable brainwave states, and some everyday examples of the sorts of activities that might be taking place in that state. A final one is added, not really a “brain wave”, but the Yogic notion of the Turiya state.

    Beta 15 to 40 Cycles per second
Alert, cognitive activity
Thinking, puzzles and problems, conversation, study

    Alpha 9 to 14 Cycles per second
Relaxed, reflecting, contemplation, low arousal

    Theta 5 to 8 Cycles per second
Daydreaming; tasks so automatic you can disengage from them;
REM sleep; creative ideation; free flow of ideas; You might realize you’ve passed the last 5 kms on the freeway without noticing;
This is a time when ideas and insights eg while showering; and the good ideas you have just before you sleep, or on awakening before the active mind clicks in

    Delta 1.5 – 4 Cycles per second:
Deep dreamless sleep

    Zero Cycles per second – Brain Dead

(Source data:

Traditional Yoga describes another
    Turiya state : Beyond Delta
Pure consciousness, consciousness free of conditioning and constructs

In Daily Life

When you are studying, you will be in high beta mode.  When you go to bed and think for a few minutes before getting drowsy, you are likely to be in low beta.  When you close your eyes and feel drowsy, your brainwaves will descend from beta, to alpha, to theta and finally, when you fall asleep, to delta.  This reverses on awakening.  When you are in REM sleep, you are in theta, and then fall back into delta.

While one mode is likely to be dominant at any given time, all the other modes exist in the brain at some level too. It may be possible to maintain the theta state for a period of reflection before sleep and before the day’s activities.

Very interesting, eh? You can see why there is some connection between the physiology of neural activity and meditation. Other bodily systems change with the brain wave state, too – heart rate, respiration, skin conductivity, and sensitivity to pain are amongst the measurable functions which can be found to alter during meditation.

Is there a 100% connection between meditation and brain waves?

It may be that to regard meditation as merely a state of low brain activity misses something that the physiological measures cannot catch. Teachers who espouse creative visualization and relaxation as meditation may support their practice with such biometric data – the dreamy quality of theta is attractive, perhaps, while the nothingness of delta seems to preclude awareness altogether. But does this comprehensively cover meditation as it has been practiced in such traditional schools as Yoga, Zen, Buddhism, Taoism, and Sufiism? Certainly not.

Tricky finding language for “beyond brain states”

Authentically, the aim of Yoga is what its name suggests – union, unitary consciousness, that is, the experience of self as the universal consciousness. Words such as “void” and “emptiness” in Zen and Buddhism point towards the same thing – a state of consciousness where the edges of the personal have dissolved into something larger, or rather, some non-thing larger, and it is un-nameable, empty of projections of the mind and devoid of personal constructs. In Taoism, it is the Way That Cannot be Named, in Sufiism, the merging of the seeker and the Beloved in ecstatic unity.

A strange realism – a discovery that is experienced

In all of them, there is a central discovery – that there is something unreal about how we normally experience life – a recognition that the mind cannot give an experience of reality; rather it creates a model which we mistake for reality. Plato called this the cave of shadows, where the inhabitants imagine that the shadows are the real world, and are reluctant to believe that there is anything else; Yoga has called it Maya, the veil of illusion.

The most intransigent illusion is that of the mind’s idea of “I”; in Latin, this is called ego, in Yoga, asmita, and in cognitive psychology, the self-construct. Yoga was astute enough to have a name for the process – ahamkara, the mind’s tendency to create a sense of I, and then regard it as a person separate from its own processes.

The adventure of traditional meditation

Traditionally, meditation has been about seeing through that illusion and becoming free of it – moksha, liberation. Free of that illusion, without ego constructs, the universal consciousness is experienced as the natural state.  So meditation traditionally entails a profound change in the sense of self and a re-evaluation of the reliability of the mental model of who we are and what the world is. It is the adventure and the work, where experience is not mediated through cognitive activity at any level.

Noticing is not what it notices

Over many hundreds of years, records abound in Yoga, Zen, Buddhism, Taoism and Sufiism of individuals experiencing the unbounded consciousness. An intrinsic step in Yoga is the development of the “witness consciousness”, a state of everyday awareness without mental constructs, which is aware of thought activity, but does not partake of it. Zen zazen is simple deconstructive awareness. Sufiism might comically regard the state more like that of someone drunk on his inner state, who doesn’t make sense to anyone who does not understand what the intoxicant is.

Research falls short, so far

Neural states described by brainwave activity, however, do not explain what enables the leap from everyday experience to the recognition of how the mind creates the illusion of the experience of reality,or the illusion of a personal self; nor do they explain how the mind can be seen for what it is.

With the development of witness consciousness, eventually comes loss of ego, or at least, non-entanglement with ego. Physiological measures don’t even begin to explore this. Neuroscientists like Susan Greenfield come closest.

Herbert Benson

A major influence in the field of biometric research into meditation was, or is, Herbert Benson. A problem for the biometric approach is that lower brain wave activity, reduced heart rate, lower respiration, and lower blood pressure cannot distinguish between meditation, as understood by the mystical traditions, and mere relaxation. In fact, while Benson became famous for separating meditation out from Eastern religions and providing a methodology for teaching meditation to non-religious Westerners, he himself called it “the relaxation response”. You can find his book called ‘The Relaxation Response’, if you like, or look up his many research articles in academic journals.

He called it the “relaxation response” because he considered it the opposite of the “stress response”. Both are physiological states triggered by perception. The stress response is a state of high arousal, a function of the sympathetic nervous system, and is triggered by a perception that the demands of a situation are beyond our normal resources to deal with (prompting the nickname “the fight or flight” response). The “relaxation response” is a state of low arousal, a function of the parasympathetic nervous system, and it can be triggered by a change of perception, for instance by looking for solutions instead of focusing on problems. High stress is costly to the body as it is designed to mobilize resources for short term emergencies. The parasympathetic (rest and digest!) system, on the other hand, assists body repair, and enhances immunity and digestion. So it is easy to see why the process of reducing arousal (brain waves, heartbeat, respiration) easily became a complementary process in health practices.

Reduce your heart rate and you will be enlightened?

But are such physiological changes all that meditation can bring about? Can relaxing visualization really claim to explain the unflappable serenity of a Zen monk? Are the insights of the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, the Shiva Sutras and the many, many other texts of Yoga, Buddhism, Zen, Taoism and Sufiism really saying, “Bring your heart rate down and you will be enlightened”?

At our school (Australian College of Classical Yoga), our trainees are asked to meditate for an hour a day, and develop the capacity for awareness of mental constructs. They are mentored through dialogue and reflection. We say that we notice “when the penny drops” and they finally become aware of how their mind creates an ego and their view of the world. It is not that we notice “when they have become more relaxed” – but, rather, we notice that their perspective changes and they become at once more introspective, more objective, and also more solution-oriented in their thinking, acting and relating. How can we make sense of this significant change if meditation is only a matter of longer brain waves or lower heart rate?

Certainly their capacity for focused beta activity appears to increase, as they appear to function better; so does their capacity for relaxed alpha waves, as they do seem to stress out less easily; but so does a capacity for quiet alertness, which is not described amongst the biological measures at all. The dreaminess or creativity of theta does not explain how an individual consciousness can become aware of the delusory nature of the mental model that the mind is constantly constructing. This quiet alertness seems neither to fit with any of the descriptions of brain wave states, nor with the simple relaxation associated with lower heart rate. It is a quiet alertness that is sometimes without thought, and is present even when thoughts still roam the mindscape. We generally discourage the visions and ideation of theta; as such activity reinforces a state of ego, of doing, of me-myself, and entangles awareness in the valuation of mental constructs. Here are some examples of their reports:

Student A: Report 14

This week I had the following insight….”I” have had a strange or interesting feeling recently; it is “something” (the SEER?) there definitely, beside or along the mind. This something is very stable and content. Even when the mind was busy, with lots of thoughts rolling over, it’s still noticeable that there is a big quietness there. The funny thing is they seem to be not contradicting each other, quite harmonious actually…Thoughts come and go, and there is a feeling of ok-ness at the same time. This is a very peaceful feeling… mind activities … are very tiny stuff and “something quiet” is very, very enormous and embraces everything, it is just so content.

“I” thought that that something (SEER, quietness) is “beyond the mind”, but it seems to be just there, and not far away. It is very hard to put into words. Quietness and thoughts are different things, but it feels like they are not fighting or against or denying each other. Tranquility is always just there, and the mind is only bubbles or ripples, so thought waves cannot disturb the quietness at all. The point is, the words “beyond the mind” gave me a delusion that quietness is somewhere and that I would have to reach somewhere beyond the mind. But, this inference only comes from the mind, and it is not true. Quietness is always within.

Student B Report 10

The second thing was an experience that happened recently in meditation that I find hard to describe. It was like shifting from mostly stillness with the odd thought drifting in and out of the mind, into stillness, into an experience of intense awareness, a clarity, a pure, deep love that dissolved any sense of me, or mind, or [Student B]. Time and space were not even concepts, let alone any mind or part of mind considering where ‘I’ fitted into that incredible expanse of lovingness. When ‘I’, the mind, came back, so to speak, I couldn’t have said if it went on for hours, days, where it happened etc., except that ‘I’ was sitting there and only a short time had passed. Hard to describe but powerful in that the effect, the feeling, hasn’t quite gone away. To say there was/is a feeling of purity about it perhaps sounds too religious and loaded, but it was so beautiful and clear I don’t quite know how else to describe the experience and how it lingers.

What these serious meditators seem to come to is, at some level, the Turiya state, a toehold on Turiya. But the literature of physiological measurement seems not even to have imagined such a state. That shows an obvious problem with the biological approach – the experiments and measures are devised by people who have not touched on a state of awareness outside the conditioned mind that is so familiar to them.

So, if you want to find out what the Yogis have been talking about for thousands of years, not to mention the Buddhists and Zen Buddhists, Taoists and Sufis, you have to be serious about meditating in stillness – for much, much longer than anyone will be interested in measuring your heartbeat.


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You might be interested also in Meditation – Being Comfortable with Reality. Or even Meister Eckhart on Poverty




About Mataji

I am the spiritual director of the Australian College of Classical Yoga. We teach reality based spirituality.
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2 Responses to Neural Activity, Physiological Measures, and Meditation

  1. Van says:

    Thank you for your reflections Mataji. Your Reflections give me further insight as I continue on my yogic journey…

  2. Mataji says:

    Thanks, Van

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