Meditation & What We are Learning from Science


In the past 50 years in Western culture there has been an impressive growth of interest in the process of meditation. 

The techniques first encountered the Western mind in the religious forms of Japanese Zen, Hindu Yogas, SE Asian Vipassana, Chinese Taoism and Tibetan Buddhism.  Bit by bit, the practices slipped away from their religious sectarian formats into more generic “spiritual” and psychological interpretations.

Medically, meditation is slowly being accepted as a viable non-invasive, non-pharma tool to treat anxiety and stress. Corporations are encouraged to integrate “mindfulness” practices into their company cultures as an approach to efficiency management.

Currently, meditation may be considered the ultimate biohacker method in which the mind itself is used to hack the mind.

Science has experienced a growing fascination with the neurology of meditation practices and in academia, there has been a slow acceptance to give credibility (and funding) to such research. 

Once an academically taboo subject, consciousness can actually be studied beyond the philosophically and marginal psychology. 

Let’s have a brief look at what we are learning about meditation from science.


A super simple approach to brain neurology is to divide experience into the external/outside and the internal/inside.  Extrinsic = external/outside and intrinsic = internal/inside.  The extrinsic involves our encounters with our environment and the tasks we perform and intrinsic the experiences that are directly self-related.  The extrinsic includes attention, sensory and motor activities. 

The extrinsic elements are sometimes also called the “task-positive networks” (TPN).  Science has less understood the intrinsic aspects and is trying hard to catch up.  It appears dominate in mental activities like imagining their future or reconstructing an event form memory.

Here is an important point – systems (technically, “networks”) that are extrinsic and the others that are intrinsic are typically in “competition” with each other. 

The scientific term is that they “anti-correlate”.  So that, even when “at rest” (meaning that they are not at that moment actively engaged in what they normally do), this competitive “anti-correlation” still appears to be basic to their relationship. 

This appears to be true even during sleep.  Anti-correlation basically means that, like a seesaw, when one is up (active), the other is down (passive).

The interactions between the extrinsic and intrinsic systems as well as the interactions within the extrinsic and within the intrinsic is technically called “functional connectivity”. 

Medical science is actively studying “functional connectivity” because it appears to be disrupted in conditions such Alzheimer’s, autism and ADHD for example.  “Functional connectivity” also appears to be temporarily affected in psychedelic experiences and the positive/negative assessment of this is keenly under research study at this time.

Immediately, the curious question is – how does this “anti-correlation” between external and internal neurological activity relate to meditation. 

Even more interesting is the question as to whether this “inside/outside” dynamic is immutable or whether it is possible to modify this brain neurology using “mental” techniques.


Meditation studies are in their infancy and not every study yields exactly the same result. 

Other than variations in applied technology and study designs, the most obvious reason for different outcomes is the highly subjective capacity of a test individual in their proficiency in their chosen technique – especially when made to perform in a potentially disruptive and foreign environment.

Neurological research has been investigating meditation and separates the vast number of techniques into three broad categories:

1)     Focused Attention (FA);

2)     Mindfulness or Open Monitoring (OM);

3)     Non-dual Awareness (NDA).

In a major study involving persons very experienced in a variety of meditation techniques, the following fascinating findings were achieved:

1)     In Focused Attention (FA) meditation:

a.     FA meditations rely primarily on the voluntary endogenous attention, mediated by the Dorsal Attention Network (DAN – part of the extrinsic system).

b.     The DAN works primarily in spatial orientation and allows for targeting within the field of awareness.

c.      The anti-correlation (competition) between extrinsic/external and intrinsic/internal neurological systems increased and became stronger during Focused Attention (FA) style meditation techniques.

d.     The correlations were higher for experienced meditators than controls, both at rest and during meditation.

2)     Mindfulness or Open Monitoring (OM) meditation:

a.     OM style meditations rely primarily on for involuntary exogenous attention/vigilance, mediated by the right-lateralized Ventral Attention Network (VAN – part of the extrinsic system).

b.     The VAN is often functionally related to the DAN and acts almost involuntarily as it is sensitized spatially to the broad field of awareness.

c.      The anti-correlation (competition) between extrinsic/external and intrinsic/internal neurological systems increased and became stronger during Mindfulness or Open Minded (OM) style meditation techniques.

d.     The correlations were higher for experienced meditators than controls, both at rest and during meditation.

3)     Non-Dual Awareness (NDA) meditation:

a.     Results lend further evidence to the claims that NDA meditations are different from both FA and OM meditations.

b.     While FA and OM meditations are traditionally regarded as “constructed” states created through deployment of specific attentional strategies, NDA meditations are thought not to involve intentional effort, but to be based on identifying a reflexive awareness that is regarded as “unconstructed”.

c.      Both FA and OM meditations are content oriented, concerned with the specifics of experience, while NDA meditations could be seen as primarily context-oriented, concerned with the context of experience.

d.     Less anti-correlation (competition) between the extrinsic and intrinsic systems was found during NDA meditation.

e.     This could be interpreted as indicating that NDA may be mediated by neural mechanisms different from the attentional systems mediating FA and OM, or alternatively, that the two attentional systems function differently in NDA than in FA and OM.

f.       The main discovery is that NDA meditation has an opposite effect, to that of FA and OM meditations, on the anti-correlation between intrinsic and extrinsic systems.


We have a lot still to learn about meditation techniques and contemporary science should give close attention to traditional guidance and perspectives.  It is easily apparent that “meditation” is not one thing any more that “exercise” is one thing. 

In both, there are many methods each with their own set of outcomes.

For example, in many circles, the alpha brain wave frequency set (8 – 13 Hz) is identified as equivalent to the “meditation” state. 

Leading edge neurological research is increasingly identifying the 8-13 Hz frequency range as a main contributing factor in maintaining a well-ordered ego state while framing out other ranges of information. 

This “ordered ego state” is fundamentally important for psychological wellbeing however if the goal is a more mutable and adaptive expansion of “self”, the continual reinforcement of the “ordered ego state” with alpha resonance may not produce the best outcome. 

Most certainly, to directly equate alpha brain wave resonance with all matured meditation states is limiting at best and potentially deceptive.

The good news is that we have the ability to use our mind to change our brain neurology.  Basic neurological relations can be coaxed into new dynamics when engaged by well-crafted techniques.

There are currently many sources offering meditation practices. There is also a new category of technologies that purport to create “instant” meditation without any of the practice. 

Considering that different classic meditation techniques do, in fact, generate different effects utilizing different aspects of brain neurology, claims from commercial “meditation” technologies require for sensitive assessment.


1)      Influence of meditation on anti-correlated networks in the brain, Zoran Josipovic, Ilan Dinstein, Jochen Weber and David J. Heeger, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, published: 03 January 2012

doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2011.00183

2)      Resting state networks and consciousness: Alterations of multiple resting state network connectivity

in physiological, pharmacological, and pathological consciousness states, Lizette Heine1, Andrea Soddu, Francisco Gómezn ,Audrey Vanhaudenhuyse, LuabaTshibanda, MarieThonnard ,Vanessa Charland-Verville, Murielle Kirsch, Steven Laureys and Athena Demertzi, published: 27 August 2012, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00295

3)      Influence of meditation on anti-correlated networks in the brain, 2012, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Zoran Josipovic

4)      Extrinsic and Intrinsic Systems in the Posterior Cortex of the Human Brain Revealed during Natural Sensory Stimulation, Yulia Golland, Shlomo Bentin, Hagar Gelbard, Yoav Benjamini, Ruth Heller, Yuval Nir, Uri Hasson and Rafael Malach; Cerebral Cortex April 2007;17:766—777, doi:10.1093/cercor/bhk030, Advance Access publication May 12, 2006

5)      Front. Hum. Neurosci., 03 February 2014 | The entropic brain: a theory of conscious states informed by neuroimaging research with psychedelic drugs, Robin L. Carhart-Harris et al