Intention and Your Brain: The Science of Meditation

The past 15 years have seen an increase of studies on the impact and scientific viability of meditation practices. Some of that work is actually being done right here in Corvallis, stemming from individuals with personal practices to groups and organizations founded specifically to facilitate meditation opportunities and growth.

Some people may think of meditation as some “woo-woo” chanting to no other purpose than hearing oneself make noise, but the reality is quite different. Dr. Jeff Tarrant, who founded the NeuroMeditation Institute, defines meditation as a “systematic mental training designed to attend habits of thinking, feeling, perceiving, and attending.”

“We use that definition because it isn’t esoteric,” Tarrant states. “The goal of meditation is to understand the mind and how it works with the goal of changing habits. These practices are helpful for some physical and mental health concerns, but your intention changes what the practice is for.”

“Depending on your intention and attention, the way you meditate affects your brain differently,” he explains. Tarrant breaks meditation practices into four categories: focus, open heart, mindfulness, and quiet mind.

A focus-based practice, like trying to pay attention to the breath alone or concentrating on some phrase, activates the brain’s frontal lobe as the individual concentrates, but an open-heart meditation, or bringing to mind loved ones and a feeling of loving kindness, often activates the left hemisphere of the brain.

The effects of meditation have been and are currently being studied and mapped using electroencephalography, or an EEG, as well as other methods like fMRIs. Tools like EEGs provide images of brain activity to show how varying meditation styles light up different areas of the brain and involve different types of brain waves.

As a psychologist with decades of experience in neurofeedback, Tarrant started the NeuroMeditation Institute to use an in-house EEG to help people identify how best to meditate depending on their goals.

Tarrant explains that meditation can be helpful for many physical and mental conditions including pain management, sleep disorders, sexual dysfunction, stress, anxiety, depression, and more. Usually the level of success is dependent on how much time the individual is willing to invest.

“When working with someone individually, we use neurofeedback by monitoring brain waves using the EEG,” Tarrant states. He explains that the EEG provides real-time data about what parts of the brain are activated. Neurofeedback is how that data can then be used to help people based on what their brain is doing, so it functions as signposts.

During their sessions, when clients are meditating, they wear a cap with sensors that connect to a computer. Tarrant can then see what areas of their brain are active as they meditate. Because of previous studies, Tarrant knows which areas of the brain should be lighting up or activating based on the type of meditation the client is doing.

The computer gives an auditory signal in the form of ambient music increasing in sound when the person is meditating “correctly,” or when the brain is activating in the right areas. This auditory input lets the client know exactly when they did something “right,” so that they can find that sweet spot again in the future, and reap the rewards of meditation faster than groping around in the darkness without any signs or help.

Tarrant stated, “I’m trying to help people feel better, and I try to help people feel better quicker. Most people won’t sit for hours at a time to figure out their mind, so we are trying to update the way we teach meditation.”

Tarrant showed me the EEG video from one client who was working on using an open-heart meditation to help with depression. The first four minutes saw relatively little activity in the brain regions that were supposed to be activated, so Tarrant and the client took a break and spoke about how the client was meditating. Tarrant found out that the client had been focusing on their breath rather than an open-heart meditation, and when the client switched, the EEG immediately registered the difference in the brain’s activity.

“This person used feedback with meditation coaching to find their sweet spot and hold it. Now the client can get into that space just by accessing that feeling they know to look for. It’s all about navigating the internal territory,” Tarrant said.

Katelin Gallagher, a recent graduate of Oregon State University’s master’s in eastern philosophy program, and a daily meditator, shared how meditation has shaped her: “Generally speaking, I find I’ve become more compassionate, self-aware, tolerant of ambiguity or gray spaces, and better able to hold or take multiple perspectives. Of course, every now and again I’m a total asshole, so meditation helps me to be with, or lean into, that too. Meditation certainly hasn’t turned me into a perfect specimen or anything, but there is greater presence with whatever is arising – be it love, or anger.”

While the brain’s reaction to meditation styles and the benefits of activating certain parts of the brain are well documented in scientific literature, there are still certain meditation practices that hold grandiose or fringe claims.

Sound meditation or sound healing posits that the vibrations of crystal bowls and gongs not only calm the mind but cleanse and stabilize the energy body – referring to “energy” in the sense of chakras and unquantifiable systems. While popular in certain circles, these claims rely on an unproven understanding of the human body and have little scientific or rational basis to support their claims. 

Some claims start with kernels of truth that are rooted in real observations, but eventually they get taken out of context. Meditation practices stem from some ancient traditions, but assuming energies and ancient wisdom are true because they are old, is a logical fallacy. The kernel of truth lies in the proven benefits of meditation. However, some have taken its beneficial effects to extremes that have not been proven, or they have created explanations for phenomena that rely on belief alone.

Many yoga studios host meditation circles for its calming effects, the Corvallis Zen Circle participates in Zen Buddhist practices, and countless individuals have personal practices that vary widely. Research-driven self-guided meditations ranging from five to twenty minutes can also be found on University of California Los Angeles’ website.

By Kristen Edge