Introduction to Meditation
Taking a look at the bottom left, we can see another real-time algorithm that tells us something about meditation. You may have a few questions here. How can meditation be presented as a number in a graph? Perhaps even more important, what is really happening in my brain while I meditate? Before we discuss too much neuroscience, let’s make sure we all have a good working understanding of what meditation really is.
What is Meditation?
Mentioning the word meditation brings up different images and feelings to different people. Some may think of a person closing their eyes and relaxing before a stressful activity, others may think of a Buddhist monk silently connecting with the world on a mountainside. Cultures around the world have dedicated generations of knowledge building to this practice but at it’s core, mediation is typically centered around the following techniques:
- Controlling your own focus on a certain item while filtering our other distractions
- Clearing your mind and relaxing your brain
- Finding a sense of inner peace from self directed relaxation
From these techniques, we can train our own attention and our own awareness. We can also train our brain to better regulate our emotions and keep ourselves mentally clear and engaged. Reaching better states of wellness, self-regulation and personal discovery can all start with practicing meditation well!
Different Meditative Practices
Over the centuries humans have developed numerous kinds of meditation ranging from practices used in religion to others used for personal fulfillment. We would need a full library to even attempt to define and categorize them all! For our purposes, we are only going to focus on the bigger cognitive picture of what is happening in your brain while we are meditating. With that in mind, let’s investigate two main meditation practices that will help us control the results on our meditation algorithm.
Focused Attention Meditation
Focused attention meditation means just what the name implies; we exert all of our attention solely on one object that we select. This could be a physical item like staring at a candle or a picture on the wall. We could be focusing our attention on an activity instead such as our own breathing. The emphasis of this kind of meditation is to prevent any other outside interaction to interfere with the attention we want to put on this one area of focus. Let’s think of a few situations that would qualify as focused attention meditation:
- You are sitting comfortably cross-legged on a mat while your eyes are closed. All of your muscled are relaxed, your hands are by your sides and feel comfortable. All of your available attention and focus is centered only on your breathing. You consciously think of taking a deep breath in, wait a few moments and then slowly exhale by carefully controlling your breath. After doing this for a few minutes, you are completely focused in on your breathing and tune out other possible distractions.
- You once again find yourself in a comfortable sitting position on a couch, desk or other seated position. You now choose a piece of music that relaxes you and play it softy. This could be orchestra music, the sounds of a beach or a windchime slowly being blown by the wind. You stabilize your breathing, relax and only focus on the sounds of that music. Slowly, your focus becomes more connected to the experience of the music rather than just focusing on the individual notes or melody.
The key to focused attention meditation is using one single item around you to filter out everything else in your mind. By proper practice of this meditation, you can better control where you purposefully direct your mental energy. Over time this practice builds better self regulation and emotional control.
Open Awareness Meditation
Unlike focused attention meditation, open awareness meditation is conducted by a lack of sustained attention on any particular item. The person practicing this simply stays in a calm, comfortable position and allows oneself to experience everything around them. The key to this type of meditation is to keep your mind as clear as possible and keep a low level of awareness of the sensations around you. Let’s review a few scenarios of this concept in motion!
- You are sitting comfortably at your desk or on a couch. You close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and relax. You slowly let your mind become clear and remove your focus from any particular item. Your senses become heightened as you notice faint sounds you were not aware of before. As your breaths in and out become more routine, you no longer need to pay special attention to your breathing pattern. Your full attention is now centered on taking in your surroundings.
- You just finished a stressful day of work or school and are now in your favorite chair at home. You start open awareness meditation the same way as above. As your attention is now centered on your surroundings and try to set yourself apart from your current stressed feelings. At first, you have some difficulty trying to stop thinking of little stressful things that happened during the day. However, as you continue to meditate, you are able to prevent more and more of those little worries from entering your thoughts. After enough time passes you slowly are able to control what thoughts enter your mind and eventually can filter all of them out to stay fully engaged with just your immediate surroundings.
How Do We Measure Meditation with EEG?
When your brain enters different mental states, the neurons in different regions of the brain fire in certain patterns that can measured by special EEG sensors placed on your scalp. The three electrodes on your head can detect these broad signals and classify them in a way that is easy for us to visualize on our BCI Connect software.
However, we have one more interesting fact to share about this process: machine learning! Instead of trying to make sense of every small electrical signal from your brain, we can instead compare these to other signal patterns that we know are from people meditating. Machine learning engineers from our partners have mapped out lots and lots of data from meditation experts around the world and ran machine learning algorithms over them to find patterns which show which brain states represent high levels of meditation and which do not. These known patterns are then compared to the signals coming from your brain live through your BCI Connect software.
Curious about what patterns your brain electrical activity is measured against? Take a look at it here! The below points are practices meditation experts from around the world were tasked to do while wearing the same Focus 1 headband you have. The data collected from these practices created the Meditation algorithm present on your software.
- 3 minutes of focused attention meditation with eyes open listening to background music
- 3 minutes of focused attention meditation with eyes open listening to other background sounds
- 3 minutes of relaxing with eyes closed
- 6 minutes of open awareness meditation
- Additional deep levels of meditation calibrated against different brain states
Of course there were many other practices taken in the lab to get good, meaningful results, however you can get a good idea from these points!
So Then What Does My Meditation Score Mean?
As you may have noticed, there is a 0 to 100 score on the left hand y axis of your meditation quadrant. Approximately each second, your BCI Connect software will take one reading of this score and present it as a point on your line graph. We are going to work a lot with these numbers, but what do these numbers really mean?
Remember, we learned that your brain signals are being compared to the data from the meditation experts that conducted the bullet points above. In order to make these comparisons very easy, the closer your brain patterns match those of the meditation expert collected data, the higher your score is! Conversely, the more your brain patterns deviate from those of the meditation experts, the lower your score will be.
Wait, My Meditation Score and Attention Score are Both High or Both Low. What Does This Mean?
Great question! In case you have not yet learned about the Attention Algorithm on your BCI Connect software, you can read more about that here: Introduction to Attention
As a general rule, your Attention score is measuring your level of engagement, that is, how much you are focusing on completing a certain task over a meaningful amount of time. Although meditating will normally make this score decrease, your Meditation score works a bit differently. Your Meditation score is determined by how close your brain patterns match those of the meditation experts doing both open awareness and focused awareness meditation. If you are doing focused attention meditation, your Meditation score will typically go up and it’s very possible your Attention score will go up as well. If you are practicing open awareness meditation, it is possible that your Meditation score will go up while your Attention score goes down. There are many different possibilities depending on what you do, however it is very likely that both of these scores will move in the same direction depending on what you do!