Meditation is a common practice believed to help reduce anxiety and stress, as well as boost emotional well-being. But how does the brain function during meditation? And do certain techniques have different effects? A new study may have the answers.

There are numerous meditation methods; mindfulness, mantra, and guided meditation are among the list. But according to the study researchers, including Svend Davanger, a neuroscientist at the University of Oslo in Norway, all techniques can be put into one of two groups - concentrative meditation and nondirective meditation.

They define concentrative meditation as a technique that focuses on breathing or on certain thoughts, which in turn, block out other thoughts.

Nondirective meditation is described as a method that focuses on breathing or on a meditation sound. But during this practice, the mind can wander. The team notes that some modern meditation techniques tend to fall into this category.

It is unknown how the brain works during such practices, so the team wanted to find out.

'Remarkable' results

For their study, recently published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, the researchers assessed 14 participants who were highly experienced in Acem meditation - a technique that falls under nondirective meditation.

All participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) while they were resting, and as they practiced one nondirective meditation technique and one concentrative technique.

They found that when participants practiced nondirective meditation, they had higher brain activity in areas associated with processing self-related thoughts and feelings than when they were resting. But when subjects practiced concentrative meditation, their brain activity was nearly the same as when they were resting.

According to Davanger, these findings suggest that nondirective meditation "allows for more room to process memories and emotions than during concentrated mediation," adding:

"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."

The benefits of meditation

Meditation is a popular practice in the US. According to a 2007 national government survey, 9.4% of respondents reported using meditation in the past 12 months.

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The images on the left show the brain during concentrative meditation, while those on the right show the brain during nondirective meditation.
Image credit: Norwegian University of Science and Technology
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As well as its potential for reducing stress and boosting emotional well-being, meditation has been associated with other benefits. Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study from the University of Montreal in Canada, which found that mindfulness-based meditation - a concentrative technique - may improve mood and sleep quality for teenage cancer patients.

A 2012 study, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, found that meditation may improve memory loss for patients with Alzheimer's disease.

Given the popularity of meditation and its associated benefits, Davanger says it is important that the team determines the underlying mechanisms of the practice.

"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," he concludes.