Meditation, Flotation Therapy, and Effects on the Brain

Meditation, Flotation Therapy, and Effects on the Brain

By Sean Sparks May 16, 2016 Edit

The Art of Meditation

In the article titled “7 Myths of Meditation”, Deepak Chopra, M.D. reminds us that “we can’t stop or control our thoughts, but we can decide how much attention to give them. Although we can’t impose quiet on our mind, through meditation we can find the quiet that already exists in the space between our thoughts. Sometimes referred to as ‘the gap’, this space between thoughts is pure consciousness, pure silence, and pure peace. When we meditate, we use an object of attention, such as our breath, an image, or a mantra, which allows our mind to relax into this silent stream of awareness. When thoughts arise, as they inevitably will, we don’t need to judge them or try to push them away.”

What is Meditation?

Yoga International describes meditation as “a precise technique for resting the mind and attaining a state of consciousness that is totally different from the normal waking state. It is the means for fathoming all the levels of ourselves and finally experiencing the center of consciousness within. Meditation is not a part of any religion; it is a science, which means that the process of meditation follows a particular order, has definite principles, and produces results that can be verified. In meditation, the mind is clear, relaxed, and inwardly focused. When you meditate, you are fully awake and alert, but your mind is not focused on the external world or on the events taking place around you. Meditation requires an inner state that is still and one-pointed so that the mind becomes silent. When the mind is silent and no longer distracts you, meditation deepens.”

If you are new to meditation, you can familiarize yourself with several types of meditation, how they are practiced, and finding a method that may work for you through the website Live and Dare.

What are the Benefits of Meditation?

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), there is evidence that meditation may reduce blood pressure as well as symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and flare-ups in people who have had ulcerative colitis. It may ease symptoms of anxiety and depression, and may also help people with insomnia.

Meditation Can Reshape Our Brains

Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, was one of the first scientists to take the anecdotal claims about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness and test them in brain scans. An 8 week stress reduction meditation program found that meditation can literally change your brain. It was demonstrated “that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”

The first study looked at long term meditators vs a control group. They found long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex. They also found that they had more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision making. It is well documented that as we age our cortex shrinks. But in this one region of the prefrontal cortex, 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds.

 

In a second study, they took people who’d never meditated before, and put one group through an eight-week mindfulness- based stress reduction program. The analysis of MR images found increased gray-matter density in four regions:

  1. The primary difference, was found in the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance.
  2. The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.
  3. The temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.
  4. An area of the brainstem called the Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.

The amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain which is important for anxiety, fear and stress in general got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program. The change in the amygdala was also correlated to a reduction in stress levels.

Meditation and Floating (Sensory Deprivation)

Unfortunately, many people find it difficult to meditate. Mindful.org has compiled a list of common reasons. The list includes: not enough time, uncomfortable to sit still, mind won’t stop thinking, too many distractions, don’t see the benefit, no good at it, and it’s just weird. Flotation can address many of the common reasons people find it hard to meditate. The level of physical relaxation and mental clarity that can be achieved when combining the two is remarkable. While floating your mind is virtually cut off from all outside stimuli. There is no light, sound, smell, feeling, or unwanted distractions. You literally float without any effort on the surface of the water, and the water is heated to approximately the same temperature as your skin. It is incredibly relaxing and once you get settled, you won’t even feel the water anymore. All you have to do is lay back and learn to let go. Meditation and floatation are excellent compliments to each other. For those new to meditation, floating can offer an environment without distractions to make it easier to reach a state free of thought and to focus exclusively on your breath or heart beat. The experienced meditator may find that floating can also greatly enhance their current practice for these reasons, as well.

For those that are familiar with floating, consider integrating meditation into your next float if you haven’t already. The isolation tank can be used for more than just relaxation. ESPN.go.com recently did a story on flotation. “For advanced practitioners, floating is a meditation-hack and an expressway to mindfulness, the state of being present and free of the mind’s unwanted chatter. Expert floaters know to fill the vacuum with creative exercises like visualization — an MMA fighter, for example, might visualize a new jiu jitsu move — but that’s all next-level stuff.” Athletes like Warriors point guard Steph Curry, have been using the float tank as “a recovery treatment and a mute button that he presses every two weeks to kill the din of life and work, if only for an hour.”

Flotation and The Brainwave Explanation

In The Book of Floating: Exploring the Private Sea by Michael Hutchinson, a study by Akira Kasamatsu and Tomio Hirai analyzed EEG tests of Zen monks going into deep meditative states. “This study showed that as the monks went into meditation they passed through four stages: the appearance of alpha waves, an increase of alpha amplitude, a decrease of alpha frequency, and finally (for those with the most skill at meditation), the production of long trials of theta waves.” They found that, “the more meditative experience a monk had, the more theta he generated. And, even at the depths of theta, the monks were not asleep but mentally alert.”

It is believed that float tanks are an ideal environment to access the theta state. Elmer and Alyce Green, biofeedback researchers at the Menninger Clinic found theta “to be associated with a deeply internalized state and with a quieting of the body, emotions, and thoughts, thus allowing usually ‘unheard or unseen things’ to come to consciousness in the form of hypnagogic imagery.” Physiologically, the theta  state seemed to bring “physical healing, physical regeneration.” In the emotional domain, the theta state was “manifested in improved relationships with other people as well as greater tolerance, understanding, and love of oneself and of one’s world.” In the mental domain, theta ability involves “new and valid ideas or syntheses of ideas, not primarily by deduction, but springing by intuition from unconscious sources.” The Greens point out, “in order to produce theta consciously it is necessary to have a quiet body, tranquil emotions, and quiet thoughts all at the same time.” As anyone who has floated is aware, this is a perfect description of the floater’s circumstances. Could it be that floating increases and facilitates the production of theta waves? Currently, there is little evidence in the form of published research is available to support these claims.

A small pilot study by Tom Fine was done to examine the changes of EMG and EEG of flotation REST (F-WET) compared to a “Dry” flotation (F-DRY) condition and a non-REST control (MAT). Nine subjects, five female and four male, were run in each of three 60 minute sessions. It was found that “although average frequency was similar in all three conditions; average amplitude, percent time in alpha and theta were quite different. F-WET was dominated by higher amplitude, theta frequency components; while the MAT and F-DRY were dominated by lower amplitude, alpha frequency components. The results of this study suggest that further investigation of EEG activity during flotation REST is worthwhile.”

Justin Feinstein, Ph.D. Clinical Neuropsychologist Director at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research is exploring the effects of floatation on both the body and the brain in a new study on a large sample of subjects. There are also plans to explore its potential as a therapeutic treatment for promoting mental health and healing in patients who suffer from conditions such as anxiety, addiction, and anorexia. His presentation will unveil the results from a recent float-fMRI study, illuminating for the first time how the human brain is changed by the floating experience. Read more about Dr. Feinstein’s research in TIME Magazine.

Experience the Benefits of Meditation and Flotation

Whether you are an experienced meditator or someone that is thinking about incorporating meditation into your daily life, finding a style that works for you is the key. There are numerous benefits meditation has to offer. Some use meditation for stress relief and lowering blood pressure, while others use it for calming the mind. It’s no wonder that meditation has been used by many different cultures over the course of history.

Using a float pod, tank, or cabin may provide an environment to not only enhance the experienced meditators practice, but also to make it easier for the beginner. Consider combining meditation with flotation to take your practice to the next level. You can locate a float center near you at Flotation Locations. Flotation is proving to be a promising area of study when it comes to a new research. It will be exciting to find out new discoveries about meditation, flotation, and how it impacts the brain.