Contextual Note: 1) This interview was developed around ten questions that occurred to me after reading some of Dr. Travis’s research. While I had time to prepare my questions, Dr. Travis was only given the questions moments before the interview. 2) This interview was edited for readability; content was kept as accurate as possible.
My name is Andrew Galbreath. I am a student in the pre-med program at Maharishi University of Management. During the January block of 2012, I researched the human brain. I am privileged to have this interview with Dr. Frederick Travis, Dean of the Graduate School, Chair of Maharishi Vedic Science and Director of the Center for Brain, Consciousness and Cognition here at Maharishi University of Management.
AG: My first question is concerned with EEG waves. I have read that certain frequency ranges are associated with different states of consciousness.1 Does the brain simultaneously operate at multiple frequencies, or is only one frequency generated at a time?
FT: The simple answer is multiple frequencies. For a further understanding of different frequency bands, I can give you the paper on three categories of meditation (focused attention, open monitoring, automatic self-transcending).2 It’s also on my website DrFredTravis.com. In it, we go into a whole section on where in the brain different frequency bands are generated and what that EEG frequency suggests. First, it is important to understand; what is the brain? I see the brain as The Interface. Almost like a computer interface. A computer interface takes one type of input, and then changes it to another type of input. And that’s what the brain is doing. For example, we have light which is impinging on the retina, and we have pressure waves that are impinging on the ear, and we actually have touch pressure waves on the skin, chemical, taste, smell. This energy from the outside environment is transformed into brain waves. These brain waves develop as one neuron sends a signal to another neuron, which then sends a signal to another neuron and so on. It’s that brain wave activity which encodes the outside world. That’s how we as the Experiencer, the Doer, the Agent, the Self actually sees the world. So, what the brain waves are is a code, a transformation of the outside world that allows us to see the outside world. You don’t see a sunset, you don’t see your best friend, you don’t see your wife, you don’t see the food at Annapurna. What is actually happening is that those visual images are broken up into sequences of action potentials. It’s almost like Morse code. But the information isn’t in “long and shorts,” it is instead in frequency of firing. If you are in the visual cortex seeing the picture of a sunset coming in, there’s just going to be firing rates. If you are in the auditory cortex and you’re hearing Mozart come in, it’s going to be firing rates. Indeed, in some people with synesthesia the information from the eye goes both to the auditory and to the visual cortex. These firing rates allow the synesthetic person to actually see sounds. They actually see different colors when they hear sounds; and they hear visual objects. This is what the brain wave is, it’s that interface.
So now let’s go a little bit deeper. Brain waves are how fast the brain is cycling and depending on which parts are involved determines how you see the world. For instance, it is during deep sleep that the brain waves are slowest; they go up and down about one time a second. During deep sleep you’re out to the world, you’re not connected to the outside environment. Brain metabolic rate is decreased by about twenty percent. When the brain is in that slow frequency, it’s actually involved in repair work; not so much repair of damage, but more repairs from ongoing use. Every time a neuron fires it uses an energy molecule and every time different neurons fire together they change their connection. What sleep does is replenish the energy that’s needed, and it also does housekeeping at the level of the connections between brain cells.
The frequency of the brain is going to be generated from many points at a time. Some of these you will see and some of these you won’t see. For instance, in EEG when you put sensors on the scalp, the reason you are able to pick up something under them is because the brain cells are oriented perpendicular to the surface, with hundreds of thousands of neurons lined up side to side. What’s happening when one neuron talks to another is that it’s changing the concentration of ions, both inside and around the neuron. If it’s excitatory, what will happen is positive ions will be going into the cell, making the outside partially negative. In the interstitial fluid around the cell there’s a difference in charge that develops, and starts a movement of particles. This actually entrains other neurons that are close to it, but only about a millimeter away, it’s not a major thing. This starts to recruit more and more individual neurons, and as they’re beginning to oscillate in the same frequency, we start to pick up EEG signals. The brain does not have a smooth surface; it is highly folded in upon itself. Where the brain has folded in, those cells which are perpendicular to the cortical sulcus are lying so that they are lengthwise to the surface of the scalp, so whatever those cells are doing we don’t pick up with EEG. We actually pick those up with another measure called magnetoencephalography. This is possible since the magnetic signal is perpendicular to the electrical signal.
Now, the whole thing about brain waves, they give us close approximations to what’s happening, specifically in terms of level of alertness. When your attention is going out through the senses and it’s focusing on one object in the environment, that’s when you see gamma EEG. Gamma is the fastest EEG frequency at 20 to 50 times per second. As the attention is more directed inwards and you’re just doing ongoing processing, you see a slower EEG frequency called beta; it goes up and down 16 to 20 times a second. There’s a frequency between 13 and 16 cycles per second and that’s the marker of stage 2 sleep, called sigma. A little bit lower and you have alpha which is 8 to 12 cycles per second. The top part of the alpha frequency, ten to twelve, is associated with brain modules which are online but not being currently used. For instance, when most people close their eyes, in the visual center you will see alpha EEG but the frequency will be 10 to 12 cycles per second. Meaning the visual modules are not being used because the eyes are closed. But the brain wants to keep them awake; you want to keep them primed so as soon as your eye opens a little bit, you can see. The bottom part of the alpha frequency, 8 to 10 Hertz, is what you see when the attention is turned within but you’re not actively processing. This is the frequency seen during Transcending. Theta is next from 4 to 8 Hertz, the top part of theta, 6 to 8 Hertz, is seen during memory task and seen whenever the attention is turned within but now you’re actually processing. The lower part 4 to 6 Hertz is seen during dreaming. Below that we have Delta from 0 to 4 Hertz. The 3 to 4 Hertz Delta can be seen in waking if different brain areas are inhibited very strongly or if there are lesions. The lowest frequency is seen when people are asleep. Whatever part of the brain is functioning, it is contributing to the ongoing electrical activity, and then that’s all added up to what you finally get on the scale.
AG: I see. So the EEG is showing a simultaneous composite of the different waves that are associated with different areas of the brain.
AG: Would you clarify something for me. You said that the EEG which you’re picking up is of multiple cells close together and perpendicular to the scalp. Does that mean you’re not actually measuring association tracts that would be parallel to the surface? Are you measuring close connections, as opposed to long axons?
FT: What you’re measuring is the electrical activity in one part of the scalp. We see 95% of the input from other areas in the brain. Some can be close as you’re saying, and some can be long range. The association fibers would just be the influence of some far distant part of the brain; 3% are from the other side, through the corpus callosum; 3% are from sub-cortical structures. On the surface, you’re getting primarily what’s happening in that hemisphere, but it also has contributions from other parts of the brain.
AG: Okay, Thank you. How are synchronized waves generated?
FT: Well, first I’d like to differentiate coherence waves and synchronous waves. Coherence is whenever the phase relationship is stable. The electrical activity from two parts of the brain is stable. What this means is one part of the brain can either lead or lag the other part of the brain, but as long as that relationship remains stable over time, coherence is said to be high. Synchronous waves are also coherent. The difference is synchronous waves actually go up and down together, there’s no leading or lagging. In coherence, the EEG waves are leading and lagging because the two brain areas are involved in the same task even though they’re separated in space. It’s almost like a communication, when you have a discussion, one person talks, one person listens, and then the other person talks, and the other person listens. There is actually a lag in activity as information is going from one part of the brain to the other. But as long as they’re involved in the same task that relationship will remain stable. Synchrony is suggesting that it’s not information travelling horizontally. Because if information travels horizontally it takes time and you’ll get some phase difference there.
So, how is synchrony created? There are actually two models of it, one is that sub-cortical areas are simultaneously activating spatially dispersed parts of the brain, and because it’s the same sub-cortical generator, it’s activating both together. Another is something called “electrical synapses and gap junctions.” In typical nerve conduction you have a neuron, you have the output fiber called the axon, you have a space called the synapse and then you have another neuron. The action potential comes to the end of the axon, neurotransmitters go across the space to receptors and it creates a signal in the other neuron. With gap junctions it’s different. The gap junctions are usually between two dendrites. Dendrites are often smooshed on top of each other. It’s almost like unwashed spaghetti. The membranes are touching each other. In addition, there are breaks in the cell membranes that allow any electrical change in one cell to propagate into the next cell. Almost instantaneously, electrical activity flows through those gap junctions. The places of the brain where the most gap junctions are found are the places in the brain most central to conscious experience. Those places are the brainstem, reticular activating system and thalamocortical circuits. So that’s another thought of how synchronous activity can come up, especially gamma. Gamma is very fast; it goes up and down 20 to 50 times per second. It’s sort of a sloppy frequency band since it covers a wide range. When you open your eyes and look out, just before you’re consciously aware of an object, there’s a burst of gamma over the brain. What the burst of gamma seems to be doing is binding together spatially separate parts of the brain into a unity of experience. The gamma is thought to do this by activating downstream, alerting downstream (that means later in processing) all of the neurons, “Okay here comes something, wake up. There’s something there.” So, how are they synchronized? It may be from a sub-cortical structure, it may be through this process of electrical synapses and gap junctions. It’s an exciting area because it’s giving a possible candidate for the binding problem. How are consciousness and the brain put together? How is the activity of one tied to the other?
AG: I have read that gamma waves originating from the thalamus appear to be necessary for us to have an integrated conscious experience of reality.3 I am confused when I read that Transcendental Meditation engenders higher alpha and lower gamma during tasks, yet also read that TM creates higher broadband frontal coherence.4 Can you explain this to me?
FT: Yes, what we have are two aspects here. One is height of activity, which is higher alpha and lower gamma. The other is coherence, broadband frontal coherence. Coherence is independent of amplitude of the wave. So that’s one understanding. Let’s go a little bit deeper. Gamma waves aren’t necessarily produced in the thalamus. Typically, gamma waves are produced within the cortex and have to do with linking interactions between small brain areas. Gamma waves are what allow you to see pieces of experience. The thalamus is central to the whole idea of alerting. In the brainstem is your reticular activating system, which is your crude turning on or turning off of arousal. When that turns on, it goes up through the thalamus, specifically, the intralaminar nuclei. Laminar are like plywood layers and these nuclei are within fatty layers that separate the major parts of the thalamus. It’s an extension of the reticular activating system which goes through the thalamus, and then goes up and activates the rest of the brain. So, those cells are critical. When the reticular activating system is active, it goes up through the intralaminar nuclei, it goes up to the brain, and you will see gamma. On that level you could say the thalamus produces gamma.
But what about this higher alpha, and lower gamma. This was research looking at three groups of people; non-meditators, people practicing TM for seven years, and people practicing TM for twenty four years who reported the experience of Cosmic Consciousness.4 We looked at how their brains were different. We found that in non-meditators compared to people reporting Cosmic Consciousness, there was a flip in the predominate brain wave. In non-meditators, it was mainly higher gamma activity and lower alpha, and it was the opposite in the people reporting Cosmic Consciousness. Gamma is known to be outer referral experience, when the attention is going out, it’s seeing the outside world as if collapsed into a specific experience. You see the cup, only the cup and nothing else. When 8 to 10 Hertz alpha activity is seen the attention is turned within and it’s undirected. It’s seen during TM, but it’s also seen at other times. Just before expert riflemen pull the trigger, at that moment there’s a flood of 8 to 10 Hertz alpha over their brain. It is within that state that they pull the trigger. I think what’s happening here is that before they’re acting they’re going into silence. It is within that silence that they move. It’s not their individual ego telling them when to let go, it’s just the natural motor system taking over, it’s within this experience of an inner, more self-referral awareness. I think what we’re seeing with higher alpha and lower gamma is the state where people start to live their lives as they begin to transcend. They’re less outside in what’s happening, and they’re more self-referral. The outside world is constantly changing, sometimes going to be good, sometimes going to be bad. But the reality of their experience is, “I’m stable and even, and so what if I blew a tire on my car, or so what if someone ran into my car, or so what if I dropped my books and they’re all wet. That’s happening out there, it’s not really affecting me.” It’s not an affirmative thing you do in your brain; it’s not something you have to remember or anything like that. It’s just the whole structure of how you perceive now. What’s coming in is a smaller part of what’s contributing to the whole experience. So that’s why I think we see higher alpha and lower gamma.
At the same time we find that coherence in all three frequency bands is higher as you grow towards enlightenment. That is in the alpha band, the beta band, and the gamma band. Now just to understand this one step further, two Finnish scientists, Palva and Palva,5 looked at a relationship called cross-frequency coherence. For example, what’s found on the EEG when you’re doing a task is the alpha wave; let’s say it goes up and down ten times a second or once every tenth of a second. The alpha wave, which is going up and down ten times a second, begins to be lined up with the beta wave, which goes up and down twenty times per second, and it’s lined up with the gamma wave going up 40, 50 times per second. That means that every time you come to the baseline and you get one alpha wave, you get two beta waves. They start at the same point, but one will go twice, and the gamma wave will go up like four or five times. What seems to happen is these different frequency bands get lined up in the process of doing a task; gamma’s getting the pieces, beta’s doing the housekeeping, alpha is expectation and the larger field of wakefulness. The cross frequency coherence actually gets higher and higher the more complex the task is. It seems to be a mechanism in the brain to try and put together the different types of procedures that the brain has to do. What we find in people reporting experiences of enlightenment is the coherence between all three of these becomes higher whatever task you’re doing. I think it is an integration of inner and outer, of wholeness and point, of self and non-self. One begins to see how they are part of the larger picture.
AG: Do you think that desynchronized brain states are an essential component of a healthy life?
FT: Desynchronized brain states are okay, as long as they are happening within a synchronized background. A desynchronized brain state is a piece of the information, a piece of the puzzle coming in. If we had the same type of brain wave throughout the whole brain you would not differentiate anything. This is what happens in sleep. During sleep the whole brain is in delta, with no information going in or out. In an epileptic seizure, there’s the same frequency over the whole brain at 3 and a ½ cycles per second, again no information is going in or out. So differentiated brain states are important to help take in differential aspects of the environment. Remember the brain is the interface. The frequency in the brain is as if transforming the outside world into a way that we can perceive it. So the problem isn’t having desynchronized brain states. The problem is that the desynchronized brain states are not themselves connected. What we see growing in people reporting enlightenment is that the desynchronized brain states will continue, but they’re in an overall larger brain state of coherence, of synchrony. This allows the individual parts to be put together into a larger whole.
AG: Alpha waves and activation of the default mode network (the DMN) are both associated with “eyes closed rest”6 as well as with TM.7 Is there much difference between the two activities in this respect? And if so, what is significant about that difference?
FT: That’s very good. First, it is helpful to understand how the default mode network was found. It was found in neural imaging data. Neural imaging data is processed by differencing two images. You take cerebral metabolic rate or blood flow during an experimental task, and then you subtract from it images taken during a control task. The reason this subtraction is needed is because all parts of the brain are always active. If you’ve ever seen two raw images, you’d be very hard pressed to say where the increase of activity was, when reading, or walking, or even during motor activities. So they take a control task, which is as similar as possible to the experimental task, except for the experimental question, and they subtract it. What gets left out are the areas of the brain that are more active. This change in activity is maybe a 3 to 5% difference, it’s very small. For example, if they want to see what parts of the brain are involved in generating verbs. They give you a list of words as nouns and you read them. Then they give you a list of words which are nouns, and you generate verbs. Then they subtract them. Notice there’s a lot of things which are common for the control condition. You’re seeing an object, you’re seeing a word, you’re processing the word, and you’re speaking the sound out. That’s the same as for the verb, but in addition you’re actually generating, taking the noun and generating a verb from it. That’s how the DMN is able to be seen.
The control condition that was often used for a task was “eyes closed rest,” or eyes open looking at a fixation point. Marcus Raquel at Washington University in St. Louisdid the original research on the default mode network.8, 9 He noticed that certain parts of the brain were consistently deactivated during tasks. So what he asked was, “Is the eyes closed control condition we’re using actually a neutral brain state?” or “Is there some organized systematic brain processing happening when your eyes are closed and you’re not actively doing any task?” He came up with this idea of a default mode network, in which particular areas of your brain are active when your eyes are closed and you’re not actively dealing with a task. Even though you’re not dealing with a specific task, you’re always scanning the environment, you’re aware of yourself, how you’re feeling, where you’re going. And when you focus on a task, those things actually disappear. When you focus on a task you forget how you’re feeling, you forget the environment and you’re focusing on what you have to do. After looking at nine different studies, Raquel found that this consistent decrease wasn’t actually a decrease in those areas due to the task. It was that those areas were more active during the control condition. By subtracting the control condition from the experimental condition certain areas of the brain came up as a negative value and looked like they were decreased. With further research the default mode network is found to be in frontal, parietal, mainly midline areas. It’s in the very center of the brain; they are very old structures which are basically tied with sense of self. In some of the research they had people generate stories, one story with personal nouns and one with third person nouns. In generating the story with first person nouns, default mode network became higher. If you do a projective test, think about yourself in the future, default mode network is higher. So it seems to be an intrinsic functioning of the brain when you’re not actively doing a task, and it seems very much to do with self-referral rather than object-referral. So this was the understanding.
In the research that we conducted we looked at default mode network during TM compared to eyes closed. Eyes closed is the typical state used to elicit default mode network activity. And then when you give them a task it becomes less. We thought this might be a way to get at meditation practices. If your meditation practice involves some cognitive activity, the default mode network would become less. Because whenever you put your attention on some cognitive task it goes down. If default mode network actually becomes higher, it suggests that whatever you’re doing during the meditation is somehow enhancing the sense of self, that sense of self which is more than when you’re just sitting there in eyes closed rest. What we found with TM is just that, the default mode network was higher compared to eyes closed rest. Since the default mode network is thought to be an intrinsic brain functioning, we suggest TM takes you to an even more fundamental intrinsic level of brain functioning, which is as fundamental to eyes closed rest as eyes closed rest is fundamental to task processing.
AG: In the research paper you co-authored, “Patterns of EEG coherence, power, and contingent negative variation characterize the integration of transcendental and waking states,”4 it was reported that preliminary MEG data showed activity in ventral, medial and cingulate cortices during the TM practice. Do you believe this activity is due to activation of the DMN or something else?
FT: It could be, as the medial, ventral and cingulate gyri are the parts of the brain associated with the DMN. It is interesting not finding activation in the parietal area, because that’s also part of the DMN. This idea of TM and DMN is not an established fact. It’s a working hypothesis; we have some blood flow data in which we found blood flow increase in the front of the brain but not in parietal areas. So, that did not support this idea of DMN. We will have to see what future data continues to show.
AG: Also in the paper just mentioned, it was proposed that prefrontal and basal forebrain areas act as a “neural switch” to inhibit thalamocortical activity, and that the Cortico-Basal ganglia-Thalamocortical oscillations maintain this inhibited activity. Do you believe these actions are prerequisites in order to develop the synchronized alpha patterns exhibited during TM?
FT: Yes. This is actually another paper, 1999 Consciousness and Cognition.10 We had people sit for ten minutes with eyes closed, followed by a task, and then meditate for ten minutes. In the other half the subjects meditated for ten minutes, did a task and then sat with eyes closed. That’s where we came up with this idea of two circuits during TM, one which takes the mind-body to a state of restful alertness, and the other which maintains that state in a non-directed, non-controlled, automatic way. Basically, the thalamus will keep the cortex awake, and the cortex will send back to the thalamus, “I’m awake.” This is known to be a generator of alpha activity, that’s fairly well established in neuroscience. The basal ganglia is between those two structures. The thalamus is in the core of the brain, the basal ganglia is like earmuffs on the outside of the thalamus, and you have the cortex around it all. The basal ganglia stretch from the front to the back of the brain. What researchers think is that the basal ganglia is constantly sampling the activation in the cortex and modulating that activation to be at an optimal level. This is necessary because all of the output from the frontal cortex is excitatory. If you think about it, something sends information to the frontal cortex, the frontal cortex sends information back to the same place, and if it’s excitatory it’s going to excite that. So now the frontal cortex is going to be more excited. The frontal cortex will excite that part of the brain more and pretty soon the brain will be at such a high level of activation it can’t actually process. What these basal-ganglia circuits do is sample the activation level of the cortex and modulate it; they can either move it up or slow it down. Five different loops have been identified; they are in the front, the motor cortex, parietal, occipital, and temporal. These are thought to automatically modulate attention thresholds. This isn’t TM research; this is just basic neuroscience research. What Keith Wallace and I suggested was that the way we can maintain the state during TM without effort is to invoke some automatic threshold regulation. We thought that was what we are learning to do when we learn TM. The experience which you effortlessly have is that you realize how you can turn the physiology to a low state by shutting off the input coming up from the thalamus, and then just allow that state to self-maintain. The body will naturally want to maintain that level of restful alertness because it’s enjoyable. It’s enjoyable for the mind and it’s enjoyable for the body because there’s a physiological mechanism that can do it, that doesn’t involve manipulation, evaluation, trying and so on, on our part. I think these two circuits are what conduct the process of transcending during TM.
I might make another sideline here. The 10 to 12 Hertz, the higher band of alpha in the EEG, is correlated with lower metabolic rate. When you see that alpha, it means the brain is idling. Cerebral metabolic rate is lower, blood flow is lower. If you close your eyes blood flow decreases in the back of the brain because you’re not processing, you don’t need as much blood there. The 8 to 10 Hertz alpha is called paradoxical alpha because it’s associated with increased blood flow. When you have increased alpha in the front it’s not that the fronto-executive system is idling; it’s actually that the fronto-executive system is more active, attentional systems are more alert. Both of these are being supported by these thalamo-cortical loops. Higher alpha is just due to modules which are primed and ready to go but not functioning. Lower alpha is seen when the attentional system is more awake. But, it’s not awake to do a specific task; it’s just awake to be aware, alert.
AG: Apneustic breathing and EEG synchronization are both associated with Transcendental Consciousness,4, 7 as well as, a lack of vagal nerve stimulation (VNS).11, 12 Here at MUM it is common to meditate before a meal, hinting that parasympathetic activity is not conducive to meditation. Have you studied the effect or effects of vagal nerve stimulation in TM?
FT: Yes, in terms of comparing the inward and outward strokes of meditation. The measure of parasympathetic activation and vagal nerve stimulation we looked at was heart rate variability with the breath frequency. It’s called respiratory sinus arrhythmia. Your heart actually speeds up and slows down as you breathe. It shows how intelligent the body is. When you’re breathing in, the volume of air in the lungs is higher, oxygen is higher, you want to get blood through the pulmonary cavity. When you’re breathing out, the volume of air in the lungs is lower, oxygen is lower, you don’t want to get as much blood through the pulmonary cavity. The oxygen exchange would be less efficient. It would be more efficient when we have a full lung of air and full oxygen. This is what our body does throughout the 24 hour period, we breathe in, heart rate speeds up, we breathe out and it slows down. And what governs the speeding up and slowing down of the heart rate is the vagus nerve. It is generally thought that the larger the parasympathetic influence on the heart, the more adaptable the heart and the body are, and the individual experiences less stress. So we looked at TM, we compared inward stroke, transcending on the mantra to outward stroke, people lost in thought. What we found is in the process of transcending, mind on the mantra, parasympathetic activation was higher, and was also higher than during eyes closed rest. In the outward stroke parasympathetic activation again went down. It went down, except during these periods of Transcendental Consciousness.
Apneustic breathing, we should explain that. There’s apnea which is breath stopping, nothing going in and out, and then there’s apneusis. The difference is, in apnea no breath goes in or out, but in apneusis breath is going in one direction, it’s going in and it’s going in very slowly. There are different brainstem nuclei that govern regular breathing, what’s happening right now, from apneustic breathing. Both of these are in the brainstem. What affects the nuclei that govern breathing now is CO2 concentration. We breathe in, we breathe out, the body continues to work, metabolize, and create CO2. The carotid arteries are being sampled, and when CO2 gets to a certain level the breath centers fire, you breathe in, you breathe out. During experiences of Transcendental Consciousness in these periods of apneustic breathing, what happens is different brainstem nuclei are now governing breathing, the parabrachialis nuclei. These nuclei are in the same area as the neurons that govern sleeping and dreaming. When they fire, they fire very slowly causing the diaphragm to slowly expand. Air starts to come in, it can come in for 10 seconds, 15 seconds, 20 seconds, the longest I found was 40 seconds. When you get to an upper level of oxygen, that’s when you breathe out. So these periods in meditation when the breath is very soft, you don’t have to worry that you’re depriving yourself of O2, or that it’s setting up a hypoxic situation. It’s just a whole different style of breathing. At the same time the dead air space is vibrating with the beating of the heart. The whole air inside the lungs is maximally rich in oxygen and you don’t feel as though you’re suffocating, actually the body is getting all of the oxygen it needs. We see that because after the apneustic breathing there is no compensatory breathing.
Just at the point where you go from waking state breathing to this apneustic breathing, there is a burst in the sympathetic nervous system, you actually see a skin conductance response. Skin conductance is going down, down, down during the inward stroke of meditation but at these periods where you have the slower breathing, it goes up. Just as when any time you have a significant experience it goes up. Even any time you have a stressful experience it goes up. In our meditation it goes up, and then it goes back down. What this burst in the sympathetic nervous system is doing, I think, is just part of that transition from mind on the mantra, to pure consciousness. It’s supporting the liveliness of the experience of the transcendent. Then after this transition in breathing, the autonomic nervous system becomes completely silent. This is what the body is doing as we go from mind on the mantra, some content along with pure consciousness, to just pure consciousness.
And in terms of the meal, we do meditate before lunch. It’s sort of astounding, we get up from meditation, we put our coats on, we go out, and five minutes later, we’re in the midst of Annapurna. People, and noise, and food, and running around. Because the whole process of transcending is natural, what it’s doing is building adaptability. So you come out of meditation and now the mind and body are ready to go into activity.
AG: First, let me just say; the vagus nerve is one of the parasympathetic nerves. Apneustic breathing is associated with loss of vagal nerve input into the pons and medulla area, I read that in one paper.11 In another paper,12 vagal nerve stimulation was shown to be an effective technique to disrupt the synchrony of the brain. So, it’s lack of input from the vagus nerve that allows brain synchrony, and which causes apneustic breathing. The vagus nerve is a major nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system. So I was thinking that perhaps the meals induced parasympathetic nerve activity which might inhibit transcending. Now, you also say that there is an increased sympathetic response at the moment of transcendence. I was just wondering if it might be almost impossible to transcend with concomitant vagal nerve activation.
FT: We do see increased vagal nerve activation in the process of transcending. We do see a burst as you go from mind on the mantra to the transcendent, and then within the transcendent it’s completely quiet. So at least to the door of the transcendent, it doesn’t seem to inhibit. But within the transcendent, at least by the measures that we’re using, it does, parasympathetic activation goes down. So it really couldn’t contribute to that. Now this thing about eating and meditating it’s interesting, if I eat I don’t transcend.
AG: Your sleep studies of people reporting “witnessing sleep” was focused on the non-REM stages 3 and 4.13 Is there any evidence indicating EEG synchronized coherence integrated with REM sleep?
FT: We didn’t look at REM and the reason we didn’t is because during REM there is some transitory consciousness, awareness anyway. We wanted to see this experience of witnessing throughout the whole night. You see this even in the deepest points of sleep, stage three and four sleep. So that’s why we looked at stage three and four sleep. And we looked at it in the first three sleep cycles, because that’s when most of the stage 3 and 4 sleep is. I would think it would be in dreaming as well because people report the experience of witnessing dreaming. “And the dream comes, and the dream images come together, and the dream storyline unfolds itself.” But it’s as though they’re watching it. It’s not affecting them. They’re just in the same silence that was there during sleep, it’s there during dreaming. The experience of witnessing is now there with this increased activity of dreaming.
AG: This question was inspired by research that shows REM sleep having the hallmark of desynchronized sleep.14, 15 It made me think if that’s a hallmark, would it be possible to have a synchronized waveform in REM sleep? Have you looked at any REM sleep?
FT: Not in people reporting witnessing sleep. I think it would though. Because what’s happening in dreaming is the REM-on cells in the brainstem are activating motor, limbic and visual areas. And that means the frontal and fronto- areas are typically turned off.
AG: You think it would be there then?
FT: I would think that you would have the overall alpha coherence. We see the alpha coherence during dreaming.
AG: Alpha coherence, more so than synchrony?
FT: Yes the work that we’ve done has been coherence.
AG: What potential do you think the human nervous system allows us? And what component or integration of the human nervous system do you think allows that potential?
FT: What allows it is feedback loops. Because the brain isn’t a hardline structure, it’s not like a rock with a crystalline structure. There are feedback loops that are constantly being created, re-created, and shifted with each new experience, so that’s the second part. What potential does the human nervous system allow us? I think what it allows us is to have point and whole together. You can have one part of the nervous system maintaining one level of synchrony, just like we see the alpha synchrony during TM beginning to be seen during activity in people reporting enlightenment. We also see the synchrony of gamma and beta needed to do a task in these people. I think this is the potential of the human nervous system: to live infinity in the midst of finite change, to live immortality in the midst of mortality, to live outside of time and space in the midst of time and space.
AG: Thank you very much Dr. Travis. It was an honor.
FT: My pleasure Andrew.
Stars Through Men’s Dome
1) Juergen Fell, Nikolai Axmacher, Sven Haupt, From alpha to gamma: Electrophysiological correlates of meditation-related states of consciousness, Medical Hypotheses, Volume 75, Issue 2, August 2010, Pages 218-224, ISSN 0306-9877, 10.1016/j.mehy.2010.02.025.
2) Travis, F. and Shear, J. (2010). Focused attention, open monitoring and automatic self-transcending: Categories to organize meditations from Vedic, Buddhist and Chinese traditions. Consciousness and Cognition, 19:1110-1119.
3) Antti Revonsuo, James Newman, Binding and Consciousness, Consciousness and Cognition, Volume 8, Issue 2, June 1999, Pages 123-127, ISSN 1053-8100, 10.1006/ccog.1999.0393.
4) Fred Travis, Joe Tecce, Alarik Arenander, R.Keith Wallace, Patterns of EEG coherence, power, and contingent negative variation characterize the integration of transcendental and waking states, Biological Psychology, Volume 61, Issue 3, November 2002, Pages 293-319, ISSN 0301-0511, 10.1016/S0301-0511(02)00048-0.
5) Palva S., Palva J. M. (2011). Functional roles of alpha-band phase synchronization in local and large-scale cortical networks. Front. Psychol. 2:204. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00204.
6) Gennady G. Knyazev, Jaroslav Y. Slobodskoj-Plusnin, Andrey V. Bocharov, Liudmila V. Pylkova, The default mode network and EEG alpha oscillations: An independent component analysis, Brain Research, Volume 1402, 21 July 2011, Pages 67-79, ISSN 0006-8993, 10.1016/j.brainres.2011.05.052.
7) Travis, F. States of Consciousness Beyond Waking, Dreaming and Sleeping: Perspectives from Research on Meditation Experiences. Chapter 10. D. Cvetkovic and I. Cosic (eds.), States of Consciousness, The Frontiers Collection, ISSN 1612-3018, ISBN 978-3-642-18046-0, DOI 10.1007/978-3-642-18047-7_10, # Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2011
8) Debra Gusnard, Erbil Akbudak, Gordon Shulman, Marcus E. Raichle, Role of medial prefrontal cortex in a default mode of brain function, NeuroImage, Volume 13, Issue 6, Supplement, June 2001, Page 414, ISSN 1053-8119, 10.1016/S1053-8119(01)91757-4.
9) Marcus E. Raichle, Abraham Z. Snyder, A default mode of brain function: A brief history of an evolving idea, NeuroImage, Volume 37, Issue 4, 1 October 2007, Pages 1083-1090, ISSN 1053-8119, 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2007.02.041.
10) Travis, F.T. & Wallace R.K. (1999). Autonomic and EEG Patterns during Eyes-Closed Rest and Transcendental Meditation Practice: The Basis for a Neural Model of TM practice. Consciousness and Cognition, 8, 302-318.
11) Walter M.St. John, Richard L. Glasser, King Richard A., Apneustic breathing after vagotomy in cats with chronic pneumotaxic center lesions, Respiration Physiology, Volume 12, Issue 2, June 1971, Pages 239-250, ISSN 0034-5687, 10.1016/0034-5687(71)90056-9.
12) Harinder Jaseja, EEG-desynchronization as the major mechanism of anti-epileptic action of vagal nerve stimulation in patients with intractable seizures: Clinical neurophysiological evidence, Medical Hypotheses, Volume 74, Issue 5, May 2010, Pages 855-856, ISSN 0306-9877, 10.1016/j.mehy.2009.11.031.
13) Mason, L, Alexander, C., Travis, F, Marsh, Orme-Johnson, D.W., Gackenback, J., Mason, D.C., Rainforth, M., & Walton, K.G. (1997). Electrophysiological correlates of higher states of consciousness during sleep in long-term practitioners of the Transcendental Meditation program. Sleep, 20: 102-110.
14) Harinder Jaseja, A brief study of a possible relation of epilepsy association with meditation, Medical Hypotheses, Volume 66, Issue 5, 2006, Pages 1036-1037, ISSN 0306-9877, 10.1016/j.mehy.2005.12.012.
15) M.N Shouse, P.R Farber, R.J Staba, Physiological basis: how NREM sleep components can promote and REM sleep components can suppress seizure discharge propagation, Clinical Neurophysiology, Volume 111, Supplement 2, 1 September 2000, Pages S9-S18, ISSN 1388-2457, 10.1016/S1388-2457(00)00397-7.
Listed alphabetically by author’s last name
1) Blumenfeld, H. (2010 ). Neuroanatomy through Clinical Cases, Second Edition. Sunderland: Sinauer.
2) David Orme-Johnson, Evidence that the Transcendental Meditation program prevents or decreases diseases of the nervous system and is specifically beneficial for epilepsy, Medical Hypotheses, Volume 67, Issue 2, 2006, Pages 240-246, ISSN 0306-9877, 10.1016/j.mehy.2006.03.034.
3) Ephraim Philip Lansky, Erik K. St. Louis, Transcendental meditation: A double-edged sword in epilepsy?, Epilepsy & Behavior, Volume 9, Issue 3, November 2006, Pages 394-400, ISSN 1525-5050, 10.1016/j.yebeh.2006.04.019.
4) Harinder Jaseja, Meditation may predispose to epilepsy: an insight into the alteration in brain environment induced by meditation, Medical Hypotheses, Volume 64, Issue 3, 2005, Pages 464-467, ISSN 0306-9877, 10.1016/j.mehy.2004.09.012.
5) Harinder Jaseja, Meditation potentially capable of increasing susceptibility to epilepsy – A follow-up hypothesis, Medical Hypotheses, Volume 66, Issue 5, 2006, Pages 925-928, ISSN 0306-9877, 10.1016/j.mehy.2005.11.043.
6) Harinder Jaseja, Meditation and epilepsy: The ongoing debate, Medical Hypotheses, Volume 68, Issue 4, 2007, Pages 916-917, ISSN 0306-9877, 10.1016/j.mehy.2006.08.029.
7) Harinder Jaseja, Can transcendental meditation exercise a miraculous control over long-standing epilepsy?, Medical Hypotheses, Volume 72, Issue 1, January 2009, Page 106, ISSN 0306-9877, 10.1016/j.mehy.2008.08.007.
8) Harinder Jaseja, Meditation: Epileptogenic versus antiepileptic influence, Epilepsy & Behavior, Volume 16, Issue 1, September 2009, Page 187, ISSN 1525-5050, 10.1016/j.yebeh.2009.07.011.
9) Harinder Jaseja, Potential role of self-induced EEG fast oscillations in predisposition to seizures in meditators, Epilepsy & Behavior, Volume 17, Issue 1, January 2010, Pages 124-125, ISSN 1525-5050, 10.1016/j.yebeh.2009.10.022.
10) Harinder Jaseja, EEG fast oscillations and epileptogenesis during meditation: Corroborative empirical evidence, Epilepsy & Behavior, Volume 18, Issues 1–2, May 2010, Page 133, ISSN 1525-5050, 10.1016/j.yebeh.2010.04.003.
11) Mason, L, Alexander, C., Travis, F, Marsh, Orme-Johnson, D.W., Gackenback, J., Mason, D.C., Rainforth, M., & Walton, K.G. (1997). Electrophysiological correlates of higher states of consciousness during sleep in long-term practitioners of the Transcendental Meditation program. Sleep, 20: 102-110.
12) Philip Nicholson, Does meditation predispose to epilepsy? EEG studies of expert meditators self-inducing simple partial seizures, Medical Hypotheses 2006;66 (3):674-6 doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2005.09.023
13) Richard Swinehart, Two cases support the benefits of transcendental meditation in epilepsy, Medical Hypotheses, Volume 70, Issue 5, 2008, Page 1070, ISSN 0306-9877, 10.1016/j.mehy.2007.11.015.
14) Tortora, G. J. (2009). Principles of Anatomy and Physiology twelfth edition. Wiley.
15) Travis, F.T., Arenander, A., DuBois, D. (2004) Psychological and physiological characteristics of a proposed object-referral/self-referral continuum of self-awareness. Consciousness and Cognition, 13/2, 401-420.
Opening photo: Women’s Dome at M.U.M. taken with Samsung camera phone by Andrew Galbreath, enhanced in Adobe Photoshop CS5 Extended.
Closing photo: Ceiling of Men’s Dome taken with Samsung camera phone by Andrew Galbreath, with photo taken by Russell Croman (http://www.rc-astro.com/) of Nebula NGC 2170, blended and enhanced in Adobe Photoshop CS5 Extended.