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 Table of Contents  
Year : 2021  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 219-221

Which meditation is suitable for me? A neurophysiological perspective

1 Department of Physiology, AIIMS, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, India
2 Department of Physiology, GSVM Medical College, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India

Date of Submission09-May-2020
Date of Decision13-Jun-2020
Date of Acceptance27-May-2021
Date of Web Publication28-Dec-2021

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Yogesh Singh
Department of Physiology, AIIMS, Virbhadra Marg, Rishikesh - 249 203, Uttarakhand
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/JME.JME_10_20

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In Eastern, philosophy meditation is considered part of a yogic lifestyle. Meditation is increasingly being popular amongst the masses and routinely practiced for well-being and as a means to alleviate stress and related disorders. There are various types of meditation practices prevalent across the world and with a boom in social media and communication technology we are widely exposed to many types of meditation practices. Still, the selection of meditation is mainly based on common intuition or layman recommendations. However, there are large variations in personality, temperament, and external circumstances of an individual. With the progress of scientific research in the meditation field, all kinds of meditation can be broadly classified into major three types: focussed attention (FA), open monitoring (OM) and automatic transcendence (AT). The neurophysiology of meditation has given insight into selective functional brain networks activation such as executive control network (ECN) in FA type and default mode network (DMN) in AT type of meditation. ECN provides substratum for the focussed attention and DMN for the mind-wandering state. One fundamental question is what factors lead to oscillations of the brain between two states. Here, we are proposing that oscillations of the brain in these two states are chiefly determined by the daily life challenges and a nice way to group daily life challenges is by Maslow's hierarchy of needs. The individuals lower in this hierarchy are required to execute more of ECN for the successful survival. In this paper, we are hypothesising the detailed intricacies of the selection of meditation based on the position of an individual in the pyramid of needs and their predominant functional brain states.

Keywords: Cognition cycle, focussed attention, types of meditation

How to cite this article:
Singh Y, Singh J, Kathrotia R. Which meditation is suitable for me? A neurophysiological perspective. J Med Evid 2021;2:219-21

How to cite this URL:
Singh Y, Singh J, Kathrotia R. Which meditation is suitable for me? A neurophysiological perspective. J Med Evid [serial online] 2021 [cited 2022 Aug 10];2:219-21. Available from: http://www.journaljme.org/text.asp?2021/2/3/219/333945

  Introduction Top

In Eastern, philosophy meditation is considered as a part of the yogic lifestyle, with the ultimate goal of transcendence from the material world to self-realisation.[1] Ashtanga-Yoga talks about eight limbs of yogic practice, in which meditation forms only one limb.[2] These limbs or stages follow a sequence from external to more and more internal order of life.[2] However, nowadays, meditation is being practiced as a means to alleviate stress and related disorders.[3],[4],[5]

Currently, wide ranges of meditation practices are available that utilise and activate specific brain regions and functional networks. For the selection of 'Which type of meditation is good for me', a thorough understanding of different types of meditation and their underlying neurophysiology is essential. Based on recent research, we first highlight different types of meditations followed by a hypothesis to decide suitable meditation types for different individuals.

Types of meditation

Meditation methods are initially categorised into two main types as focussed attention (FA) and open monitoring (OM) meditation and later automatic transcendence (AT) as a third category was added. Each category of meditation has its unique characteristics EEG and MRI correlate and differ with other categories in terms of 'subject to object' relationships.[6],[7]

Subject/object relationships, cognition cycle and functional brain networks

Normally during the FA type of meditation when the participant focusses attention on the object of meditation, e.g. breath, there is a natural tendency that focusses of attention will shift away from the object after some time. This shifting, called mind wandering (MW), is eventually detected by the participant, and the attention is again placed on the breath. In principle, throughout meditation, the brain oscillates between two attention cycles, i.e. FA and MW [Figure 1]. Evidence from fMRI studies has shown that different functional brain networks are activated during the attention cycle of FA and MW state.[8] The executive control network (ECN) is activated and provides substratum for FA and default mode network (DMN) during the MW.[8]
Figure 1: Mind wondering, focussed attention, and functional brain network dynamics

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In summary, ECN and DMN are activated and support active cognitive state and passive cognitive state, respectively.[9] Detail intricacies, spatial, and temporal dynamics of various other brain networks in this process[10],[11] are not required in the context of the present discussion. During active cognitive state, the meditators are aware of the process and have a sense of command over the object of meditation (breath) in 'real-time'. However, in a passive cognitive state, DMN networks are functional and the meditator has no control over the processes and the contents of MW in 'real-time'.[12],[13] In more radical terms, the passive cognitive state comprises the absence of subject and object both, and awareness of this state can only be experienced through the ECN during the active cognitive state in retrograde.

Functional brain networks during various types of meditations

Literature reveals that there is an increased activation of ECN during the FA meditation and DMN during AT meditation.[9],[14] OM meditation is commonly described as effortless monitoring and awareness of the ongoing emotional processes.[6] Researchers have shown that the effortless monitoring of various inner mental processes is also predominantly carried by the DMN.[9] However, research suggests that 'transcendence' state is achieved earlier in AT meditation compared to OM meditation, and this effect is irrespective of the duration of practice, i.e. beginners/advanced level dichotomy.[15]

DMN provides a substratum for the MW or passive cognitive state and is activated when the brain is not involved in any active cognitive process. The passive cognitive state, i.e. absence of subject and object, may have distinct qualitative experiences for the meditator.

  Dynamics of Fluctuating Brain State Top

Relative proportions of DMN and ECN in one attention cycle, cycle length and cycle frequency can be affected in various possible ways and may lead to different types of mental disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression or schizophrenia.[16] The dynamic interaction of DMN and ECN is anti-correlated yet complementary.[17] The delicate balance between these two anti-correlated functional networks may be essential for a healthy mind to deal with the challenges of daily life.

  Proposed Model Top

Stress is defined as the body's reaction to challenges. To maintain the homeostasis in dynamic and challenging human societies, an individual has many physiological needs and demands. A nice way to categorise all daily life needs will be the pyramid of Maslow's hierarchy of needs[18] [Figure 2]. In this pyramid, basic physiological needs such as food, water, shelter, security and safety are placed at the bottom. Survival is not possible without fulfilling these basic needs and they are dire essential for life. Man can live without higher-order needs such as love and esteem but not without food and other basic needs. The higher order needs such as esteem and self-actualisation come into priority only after basic needs are fulfilled.
Figure 2: Pyramid of the hierarchy of needs

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Here, we hypothesise that these hierarchical needs itself determine the oscillation of the brain between two states of DMN and ECN. That is, for the fulfillment of the basic physiological needs, frequent activation of ECN is necessary, and higher in the pyramid there should be a greater proportion of DMN activation. This higher duration spent in DMN may provide the necessary substratum for 'transcendence' and 'self-actualisation' on the top. This hypothesis is based on the following observations and postulations:

  1. There is a natural variation between the proportion of DMN and ECN within individuals and some persons may have a greater tendency for MW than others.[19] Hence, the choice of meditation will also be affected by this natural variation
  2. Most of the studies on transcendental meditation, which is categorised under AT type, are done on experienced practitioners or the masters of the AT meditation.[7] These masters are supposed to be well-known practitioners and probably that is why included in the study. Their higher DMN activation may be due to a natural variation without any role of their practice or with practice, these practitioners reach the top of the hierarchy of needs and that is why they have higher DMN activation. We will go with a more optimistic second explanation.

  Implications Top

In the premises of the above hypothesis, we postulate the following:

The individuals lower in the Maslow's pyramid and have greater ECN activation (ability to have sustained attention) should spend more time in productive work of their interest and for them, their work should be their focussed meditation, as eventually they will get higher in the hierarchy of needs and become suitable candidates for 'self-realisation' and 'transcendence'.

The individuals, who are lower in the pyramid and have greater DMN activation due to natural variation, should do FA type of meditation as FA type meditation may help in the improvement of attentional skills for domains other than the object of meditation.[20] This improved attentional skills will help the individual to address more essential needs directly as self-actualisation will eventually be achieved at the top of hierarchical needs.

For the individuals, who are high in the pyramid of need and have greater ECN activation, the recommended meditation may be AT type. This type of meditation may act as a bridge for the gradual shift of ECN to DMN state.

For individuals with high emotional sensitivity, OM meditation should be recommended as it should help them manage their emotions.


We acknowledge that there is no absolute for the higher order hierarchical needs and it is a highly subjective phenomenon. What constitutes the optimum level for safety, love or esteem for an individual is highly qualitative as these are the 'abstract entities' for the individual. Authors also acknowledge that although the present model assumes only the linear interaction between the two functional brain networks yet, a more complex interaction between various other brain networks cannot be ruled out. In this study, we did not incorporate the contribution of individual differences (example, education, family background, IQ, and religious practices) and its role in the selection of meditation, which can be an interesting future area of research.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Aurobindo S. The Upanishads: Texts, Translations and Commentaries. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram; 1972.  Back to cited text no. 1
Coulter HD. Anatomy of Hatha Yoga: A Manual for Students, Teachers, and Practitioners. Published by Body and Breath, Honesdale, PA (2001), USA: Body and Health, Inc; 2001. ISBN 10: 0970700601ISBN 13: 9780970700605.  Back to cited text no. 2
Goldin PR, Gross JJ. Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Emotion 2010;10:83-91.  Back to cited text no. 3
Carlson LE, Garland SN. Impact of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on sleep, mood, stress and fatigue symptoms in cancer outpatients. Int J Behav Med 2005;12:278-85.  Back to cited text no. 4
Oman D, Shapiro SL, Thoresen CE, Plante TG, Flinders T. Meditation lowers stress and supports forgiveness among college students: A randomized controlled trial. J Am Coll Health 2008;56:569-78.  Back to cited text no. 5
Lutz A, Slagter HA, Dunne JD, Davidson RJ. Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends Cogn Sci 2008;12:163-9.  Back to cited text no. 6
Travis F, Shear J. Focused attention, open monitoring and automatic self-transcending: Categories to organize meditations from Vedic, Buddhist and Chinese tradition. Conscious Cogn 2010;19:1110-8.  Back to cited text no. 7
Hasenkamp W, Wilson-Mendenhall CD, Duncan E, Barsalou LW. Mind wandering and attention during focused meditation: A fine-grained temporal analysis of fluctuating cognitive states. Neuroimage 2012;59:750-60.  Back to cited text no. 8
Buckner RL, Andrews-Hanna JR, Schacter DL. The brain's default network: Anatomy, function, and relevance to disease. Ann N Y Acad Sci 2008;1124:1-38.  Back to cited text no. 9
Beaty RE, Benedek M, Silvia PJ, Schacter DL. Creative Cognition and Brain Network Dynamics. Trends Cogn Sci 2016;20:87-95.  Back to cited text no. 10
Ubinov M, Sporns O. Complex network measures of brain connectivity: uses and interpretations. Neuroimage 2010;52:1059-69.  Back to cited text no. 11
Poldrack RA. Inferring mental states from neuroimaging data: From reverse inference to large-scale decoding. Neuron 2011;72:692-7.  Back to cited text no. 12
Medea B, Karapanagiotidis T, Konishi M, Ottaviani C, Margulies D, Bernasconi A, et al. How do we decide what to do? Resting-state connectivity patterns and components of self-generated thought linked to the development of more concrete personal goals. Exp. Brain Res 2018;236:2469-81.  Back to cited text no. 13
Xu J, Vik A, Groote IR, Lagopoulos J, Holen A, Ellingsen O, et al. Nondirective meditation activates default mode network and areas associated with memory retrieval and emotional processing. Front Hum Neurosci 2014;8:86.  Back to cited text no. 14
Brefczynski-Lewis JA, Lutz A, Schaefer HS, Levinson DB, Davidson RJ. Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2007;104:11483-8.  Back to cited text no. 15
Broyd SJ, Demanuele C, Debener S, Helps SK, James CJ, Sonuga-Barke EJ. Default-mode brain dysfunction in mental disorders: A systematic review. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 2009;33:279-96.  Back to cited text no. 16
Fox MD, Snyder AZ, Vincent JL, Corbetta M, Van Essen DC, Raichle ME. The human brain is intrinsically organized into dynamic, anticorrelated functional networks. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2005;102:9673-8.  Back to cited text no. 17
Classics in the History of Psychology – A. H. Maslow. Theory of Human Motivation; 1943. Available from: https://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Maslow/motivation.ht. [Last accessed on 2020 Jan 27].  Back to cited text no. 18
Mason MF, Norton MI, Van Horn JD, Wegner DM, Grafton ST, Macrae CN. Wandering minds: The default network and stimulus-independent thought. Science 2007;315:393-5.  Back to cited text no. 19
Lutz A, Slagter HA, Rawlings NB, Francis AD, Greischar LL, Davidson RJ. Mental training enhances attentional stability: Neural and behavioral evidence. J Neurosci 2009;29:13418-27.  Back to cited text no. 20


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2]


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