Dr. Travis is the author of more than 50 research papers that investigate the relation between brain wave patterns, conscious processes, states of consciousness, and meditation practice. He regularly teaches undergraduate and graduate courses, gives seminars, and speaks at conferences around the world on brain development.
A considerable amount of research is being conducted on the brain. Can you tell us why this area of research is so important?
Dr. Fred Travis:
The brain is our interface with the world. We perceive the world and respond to the world based on the functioning of our brain. The brain transforms our experiences of the outer world so that our consciousness can understand it, and it transforms our conscious impulses so we can respond to the world around us.
Everything we do has an impact on the brain and will physically change the brain. Stress, fatigue, etc. makes the brain less adaptable, and we become handicapped in how we process and respond to our world.
A healthy brain, functioning without the restrictions caused by stress, is especially important. Probably the most important characteristic of a healthy brain is adaptability because the world is constantly changing and the brain has to change with the moment-by-moment demands of the environment around us. When we are restricted by stress, fatigue, and other negative factors, then the brain is less adaptable, and we become handicapped in how we process and respond to our world.
Research demonstrates how alcohol, drugs, stress, poverty, and sleep deprivation change the brain so that it has a diminished ability to reflect, remember, and process. Everything we do has an impact on the brain and will physically change it.
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What does research reveal about the effect of the Transcendental Meditation technique in helping the brain recover from stress?
When a person is under stress, the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making and executive functions, is less involved in activity. It’s as if it goes “offline.”
The Transcendental Meditation technique has the exact opposite effect on the brain. Neuroimaging studies show increased activity in the frontal area of the brain during TM practice, as compared to just sitting in eyes-closed rest. In addition to increased activity in the frontal areas, we also see increased activity in the back of the brain—the parietal areas. These two parts of the brain are part of the attentional circuit.
The TM technique strengthens the attentional circuits in the brain responsible for decision-making and executive functions, so that when we need broad comprehension it will be there—even when we are under stress.
Repeated experience changes the brain, and what we are doing every time we practice the Transcendental Meditation technique is strengthening our attentional circuits. If we want to build up our shoulder muscles, then we do specific exercises to strengthen the shoulder muscles and then use those muscles, for example, to carry our groceries home. Similarly, the TM technique strengthens the attentional circuits so that when we need broad comprehension it will be there—even when we are under stress—because these frontal circuits are stronger than before.
Also, the unique experience of restful alertness during Transcendental Meditation practice gives rest to the core of the brain, the thalamus. The thalamus is like a switchboard: all sensory information comes into the thalamus and then goes to the brain. With the practice of the TM technique, the switchboard of sensory experience becomes more rested.
Can you talk about your research study at American University, in which the students experienced such deep rest through TM practice that they were able to function better even under the pressure of exams?
College today is a time of incredible stress. Many students self-medicate to cope with stress. Almost half of college students binge-drink, and 20% use non-prescribed drugs. According to research, 80% of college students report being fatigued on a regular basis.
The three-month study showed that meditating students were less tired and fatigued; they recovered from stressful stimuli better and showed increased scores on the Brain Integration Scale, which is correlated with emotional stability, higher moral reasoning, and decreased anxiety.
In our randomized controlled research study, published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, we asked: how are students’ brains functioning before they start the TM technique and how are they functioning after they’ve been practicing the TM technique for three months. The three-month measurement was taken right before spring semester exams—probably the most stressful time of the year. During final exams, students typically stay up late for several days, eating bad food, getting no exercise, and feeling acute anxiety. Any one of these factors by itself is known to decrease the integrated functioning of the brain.
We found that students who did not practice the TM technique experienced a decline in brain functioning, alertness, and ability over the three-month period in which the study was conducted. In contrast, the practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique by students buffered the effects of the high-stress college lifestyle. Meditating students were less tired and fatigued; they recovered from stressful stimuli better and showed increased scores on the Brain Integration Scale, which is correlated with emotional stability, higher moral reasoning, and decreased anxiety.
The Brain Integration Scale measures whether the brain is functioning as an integrated whole or as isolated parts. Not only was the stress of finals week not affecting the meditating students, but they were actually functioning at a higher level than before they learned the TM technique. Transcending through Transcendental Meditation practice fundamentally changes brain functioning so that students are able to live life more effectively and successfully, without suffering from the deleterious effects of stress. It allows students to live life in a state of evenness and wholeness rather than in anxiety and stress.
Reprinted from Enlightenment Magazine