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Hindu and Buddhist meditation compared, neurologically

Monk with GlassesWhen people hear the word “meditation,” they often think of a bald monk sitting cross-legged lost in a deep train of thought. The exact content of this train of thought can vary significantly across religious traditions: some Buddhists focus on their breathing, body, and own thoughts, while some Hindus try to achieve a dissolving of the self in the universal God, or Brahman. Buddhist practices derive from Hindu ones, and this makes Italian scientists Barbara Tomasino, Alberto Chiesa, and Franco Fabbro wonder whether differences in goal actually result in differences in the brain, or whether Buddhist meditation looks identical to its Hindu counterpart.

To compare Hindu and Buddhist meditation, the researchers conducted a meta-analysis on previous neurological studies involving these types of meditation. In theory, successful Buddhist practice would mean increased attention, corresponding to frontal areas of the brain dealing with executive function. By contrast, successful Hindu practice should develop a non-conceptual state of consciousness, corresponding with the parieto-temporal areas of the brain. The reseachers hypothesized that indeed such differences would be found.

Their dataset consisted of two meta-analyses, one for Buddhist meditation studies and another for Hindu. To qualify for meta-analysis, a study had to report result of the entire group group rather than just the regions of particular interest to that study. In total, they gathered 16 experiments from 263 participants from Buddhist meditation studies, and 8 experiments with 66 participants from Hindu meditation studies.

As expected, Hindu and Buddhist meditation had differing brain activity. Hindu meditation activated three clusters of the brain. The first consists of five regions in the brain (the left hippocampus, the left superior temporal gyrus, the right middle cingulate gyrus, the left postcentral gyrus and the left superior parietal lobule) – regions dealing with memory, especially spatial, autobiographical, long-term, and also memory consolidation. Additionally, the left superior temporal gyrus plays a role in handling social and language processing.

The second cluster activated by Hindu meditation involves an area of the brain that plays a role in monitoring and resolving conflicts. This includes having a conscious plan, moving the body appropriately, executive functions, and pain regulation. It appears that this cluster activated because of the practitioner’s awareness of his or her own body.

Third and finally, a cluster including the left postcentral gyrus and parietal lobes were triggered by Hindu meditation. The former area relates to touch representation, while the latter relates to sense of self and spatial orientation. The researchers reason that since Hindu meditation focuses on a loss of self, it makes sense that this cluster would trigger.

Buddhist meditation also activated three brain clusters. The first cluster involved the process of self-reflection and the regulation of attention. The second cluster consisted of a supplementary motor area, suggesting that this could be when Buddhist practitioners focus on their bodies. The last cluster correlates with sense of time and self-representation, an area was deactivated during Buddhist practice.

The researchers conclude that differences do indeed exist between Hindu and Buddhist meditation practices. As the authors put it, "consistently with the fundamental role of mindfulness meditation, Buddhism-inspired meditation practices could trigger activation in frontal lobe regions associated with executive attention. On the other hand, Hinduism meditation practices, primarily associated with different levels of absorption, could mainly trigger activations in the posterior temporo-parietal cortex.” In short, the difference between the two is all in the head.

For more see, “Disentangling the neural mechanisms involved in Hinduism- and Buddhism-related meditations” in the journal Brain and Cognition. 

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