For 60 years, clinicians have been combining neurofeedback with meditation to speed the learning process and potentially enhance the benefits of meditation (Tarrant, 2017a). However, there has not yet been research evidence that this approach is effective for enhancing cognitive functioning—until now!
In an exciting new study, published in the June 2020 issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers compared eight sessions of neurofeedback-enhanced meditation with a control group that received sham neurofeedback. The results showed that the experimental group was not only able to significantly increase specific brain wave activity in the frontal lobes, but also improved performance on a working memory task (Brandmeyer & Delorme, 2020).
All subjects in the study received basic instructions on how to engage in a focused attention meditation practice. They were directed to focus on the breath in one of three ways: the expansion and contraction of their belly as they breathed, the sensations of the breath through the nostrils, or counting breath cycles. When the mind would wander from the identified target, they were instructed to notice this and return to the breath focus practice. During the meditation, the experimental group received visual feedback or cues in the form of a square that changed colors relative to specific brainwave patterns. The control group received visual feedback that was essentially random-not connected to any specific brainwave activity.
Previous research in the field of neurofeedback-enhanced meditation has focused on decreasing activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN; Garrison et al., 2014; van Lutterveld, et al., 2017). This is an effective strategy as DMN activation is generally connected to mind wandering during meditation-self-referential thought. The current study chose to target increases of frontal midline theta brainwaves (FM Theta). FM Theta are slow oscillations, between 4 and 7 hz that are generated in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC). Theta originating in the ACC often increases in power during a variety of cognitive processes that require attention, focus, or emotional processing (Aftanas, et al., 1998; Aftanas, et al., 2001; Basar, et al., 2001; Dietl, et al., 1999). Several studies have found a correlation between increased FM Theta and focused attention meditation practices (Aftanas & Golocheikine, 2001; Brandmeyer, et al., 2019).
The video below demonstrates how a neurofeedback enhanced meditation session works:
To study this, subjects were asked to engage in a breath-focus meditation practice while either receiving feedback about their FM Theta activity or sham feedback. Not surprisingly, the group that received accurate feedback learned to intentionally modulate their FM Theta activity using the assigned meditation strategies while the sham feedback group did not.
In addition to exploring changes in brainwave patterns, the researchers examined the subjects’ performance on a variety of executive function tasks both before and after the eight sessions. While there were no significant changes observed in many of the measures, they did report “faster reaction times for correct n-back trials in the neurofeedback group as compared to the sham feedback group after neurofeedback training.” This is a working memory task that required subjects to recall visual stimuli that had been presented on previous trials. These results suggest that there may have been some gain in cognitive performance because of the training.
While other studies have demonstrated that neurofeedback can be an effective tool to direct and enhance the meditation process, this is the first study to show that this process could have a positive influence on cognitive performance. Given that both meditation and neurofeedback have been found to be effective in the treatment of a variety of cognitive and mental health concerns (Brandmeyer, & Delorme, 2013), it makes sense that combining these approaches could be a powerful intervention (Tarrant, 2017b). At the Neuromeditation Institute, we have been using a variation of the protocol described in this current study as adjunctive treatment for ADHD, certain forms of depression, and cognitive challenges related to frontal lobe dysfunction.
Many of our NeuroMeditation clients report that the power in this type of work is related to learning the difference between subtle states of awareness, receiving feedback as soon as the mind begins to wander, and developing an effortless approach to achieving specific meditative states. The authors of the above study reached similar conclusions stating, “Neurofeedback protocols that train the neural correlates associated with states of focused-attention (such as FM Theta) may aid in the development of cognitive functions such as attention monitoring and metacognitive awareness of when the mind wanders, both of which are considered fundamental for meditation practice as well as for the broader regulation of attention.”
In addition to the advantages noted above, combining neurofeedback with meditation also provides an objective way to evaluate which practices are most effective for a given individual. For example, a person wanting to learn a focus style of meditation might try the breathing techniques used in the study, or a mantra-based practice, focusing on the image of a spiritual figure, visualizing white light moving in and out of the heart, or even coordinating a simple movement with the breath. Each of these can be a focused attention practice, but they use different approaches. By providing a client with a few choices and monitoring the EEG response of each one, we can determine which is the most successful for them.
While we are just beginning to understand the value of combining neurofeedback with meditation, it seems clear that this approach has the potential to become a powerful intervention. NeuroMeditation approaches are already being utilized to target specific brain patterns connected to ADHD, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. At the same time, clinical-grade dry electrode EEG systems that are cost-effective and wireless are becoming more widely available. As this field advances, it may become the obvious approach to meditation in the 21st century.
This article was originally published in Psychology Today blog posted July 2, 2020. https://www.psychologytoday.com/
About the Author: Dr. Jeff Tarrant is a licensed psychologist and board certified in neurofeedback. He is the Director of the NeuroMeditation Institute and author of the book, Meditation Interventions to Rewire the Brain. Neuro Meditation Institute, Facebook, LinkedIn
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