fMRI confirms state of ‘restful alertness’ during transcendental meditation

Ever since Mahesh Yogi introduced transcendental meditation (TM) to the West in the middle of the 20th century, researchers have sought to solidify claims that the practice offered a state of “restful alertness.” Recent research used fMRI to back-up that claim.

Recent research, published in Brain and Cognition, used fMRI to back up that claim, demonstrating that during TM, the mind is alert, but both the brain and body are in a deep state of rest.

“The restfully alert state gained during transcendental is more than a concept,” said co-author of the study Fred Travis, MD, with the Center for Brain, Consciousness and Cognition at the Maharishi University of Management in Iowa in a release. "These blood flow patterns give a physiological picture of the reality of restful alertness in the mind and body."

The study group consisted of 16 women, with an average of 34 years of TM practice. They were tested as they mediated for 10 minutes while the blood flow in their brain was monitored using fMRI.

Scans showed an increase in blood flow in the brain’s prefrontal cortex associated with attention and primary functions such as decision-making, reasoning, working memory, inhibition and reward anticipation. This signals the mind is alert and is common during other forms of meditation as well.

Unlike other meditation practices, authors found TM produced a decrease in blood flow to the pons and cerebellum. The low activity in the pons—an area that controls arousal, breath and heart rate—indicated a decrease in brain activity in the area and supports the TM experience of a deeply silent mind and rested body.

"By using the mind in a specific way, restfulness follows," said lead author Michelle Mahone, with the California School of Professional Psychology in California. "While this may seem contradictory, this finding is compatible with other research supporting that meditation could be key to balancing the autonomic nervous system and improving quality of life."