Increased Theta and Alpha EEG Activity
During Nondirective Meditation
Jim Lagopoulos, Ph.D., F.A.I.N.M.,
Jian Xu, M.D.,
Inge Rasmussen, M.D.,
Alexandra Vik, M.Sc.,
Gin S. Malhi, M.D.,
Carl F. Eliassen, M.Sc.,
Ingrid E. Arntsen, M.Sc.,
Jardar G. Sæther, M.Sc.,
Stig Hollup, Ph.D.,
Are Holen, M.D.,
Svend Davanger, M.D.,
and Øyvind Ellingsen, M.D.
Objectives: In recent years, there has been significant uptake of meditation and related relaxation techniques, as
a means of alleviating stress and maintaining good health. Despite its popularity, little is known about the neural
mechanisms by which meditation works, and there is a need for more rigorous investigations of the underlying
neurobiology. Several electroencephalogram (EEG) studies have reported changes in spectral band frequencies
during meditation inspired by techniques that focus on concentration, and in comparison much less has been
reported on mindfulness and nondirective techniques that are proving to be just as popular.
Design: The present study examined EEG changes during nondirective meditation. The investigational para-
digm involved 20 minutes of acem meditation, where the subjects were asked to close their eyes and adopt their
normal meditation technique, as well as a separate 20-minute quiet rest condition where the subjects were asked
to close their eyes and sit quietly in a state of rest. Both conditions were completed in the same experimental
session with a 15-minute break in between.
Results: Significantly increased theta power was found for the meditation condition when averaged across all
brain regions. On closer examination, it was found that theta was significantly greater in the frontal and
temporal–central regions as compared to the posterior region. There was also a significant increase in alpha
power in the meditation condition compared to the rest condition, when averaged across all brain regions, and it
was found that alpha was significantly greater in the posterior region as compared to the frontal region.
Conclusions: These findings from this study suggest that nondirective meditation techniques alter theta and
alpha EEG patterns significantly more than regular relaxation, in a manner that is perhaps similar to methods
based on mindfulness or concentration.
n far Eastern cultures
, meditation has long been used
for the maintenance of ‘‘well-being,’’ and its gradual dis-
association from religious practice has allowed it to be sub-
jected to scientific inquiry. Of late, meditation has been widely
adopted in the West and is increasingly being used world-
wide for the alleviation of stress and for the treatment of
common psychiatric disorders, such as depression and anxi-
The seemingly powerful effects of meditation are in-
triguing, and the potential health benefits have aroused
particular interest, as individuals search for alternatives to
Since the 1970s, a majority of studies
have focused on concentrative meditation techniques and
transcendental meditation. Over the past decade, however,
there has been a shift toward various types of mindfulness
and nondirective meditation, as these techniques
have increasingly been embraced by psychologists and psy-
chiatrists. This is evidenced by their integration with psy-
chotherapeutic techniques for the treatment of medical and
Although recent studies have demonstrated the effective-
ness of such interventions, understanding of how meditation
exerts its biological effects remains rudimentary. Its neural
Discipline of Psychological Medicine and Northern Clinical School, and
Advanced Research and Clinical Highfield Imaging (ARCHI),
University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.
CADE Clinic, Royal North Shore Hospital, St. Leonards, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.
Faculty of Medicine, and
Department of Psychology, NTNU–Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway.
Cognitive Rehabilitation Unit, Sunnaas Hospital (CRUSH), Drøbak, Norway.
Institute of Basic Medical Science, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway.
THE JOURNAL OF ALTERNATIVE AND COMPLEMENTARY MEDICINE
Volume 15, Number 11, 2009, pp. 1187–1192
ª Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.
basis has been investigated using electroencephalography
(EEG), and these studies have provided some insight into the
neurophysiology of meditation, including long-term changes
in cortical activity.
An emerging body of literature sug-
gests that meditation activates regions of the brain involved
in the monitoring and regulation of emotion, attention, and
autonomic body functions
(Davenger et al., in review).
Several studies have reported increased EEG theta and alpha
along with increased bilateral alpha coherence in
In the present study, we sought to identify electrical brain
activity changes associated with acem meditation using EEG.
Subjects were contrasted using a within-subject comparison
across meditation, and resting states. Acem meditation is de-
fined as a nondirective meditation technique, as it does not
require volitional direction of attention toward a specific sub-
jectively experienced state of mind. It is practiced with a
‘‘free mental attitude’’ similar to mindfulness meditation,
which allows any thought, memory, emotion, or sensation to
emerge and pass through the awareness of the practitioner,
without any volitional attempt to control the current content.
The meditation vehicle, a multisyllable sound with no seman-
tic, emotional, or symbolic meaning, is repeated mentally in
a gentle, effortless way to facilitate relaxation.
studies have demonstrated significant relaxation effects
during acem meditation, such as lowering of heart rate and
increased blood concentrations of melatonin,
as well as
long-term changes, such as enhanced competitive perfor-
mance of elite marksmen and less lactate increase during a
standardized physical challenge of long-distance runners.
In keeping with these behavioral and physiologic changes,
we hypothesized that there would be discernable changes in
theta and alpha brain activity during meditation, beyond
those occurring in a resting state of regular relaxation.
Materials and Methods
Thirteen (13) male and 5 female participants aged 28–63
years (mean 52) were recruited randomly from a broad
Norwegian acem meditation community. All were gainfully
employed, and had incorporated meditation practice in their
daily routine around career and employment commitments.
All subjects were experienced acem meditators (range of
meditation experience 9–14 years) and meditated 30 minutes
twice daily. All subjects had attended at least one 3-week-
long meditation retreat in the past 5 years. No subject had
any significant current or previous medical or surgical ill-
ness, neurologic disease, or history of drug or alcohol abuse.
Subjects acted as their own controls in the experiment. The
investigational paradigm involved 20 minutes of acem med-
itation as well as a separate 20-minute quiet rest condition.
Both conditions were completed in the same experimental
session with a 15-minute break in between. All subjects were
seated in a comfortable chair in a sound-attenuated room at
ambient temperature. The participants were only provided
with instructions for the two separate conditions and no
additional information was offered to the participants as to
the nature of the rest condition. For the meditation condition,
the subjects were asked to close their eyes and adopt their
normal meditation technique. For the quiet rest condition,
the subjects were asked to close their eyes and sit quietly in a
state of rest, without performing any meditation technique.
The allocation of the order in which the two conditions
(meditation or rest) were performed was randomly assigned
(and subsequently counterbalanced) such that an equal num-
ber of subjects (n ¼ 9) began with the meditation condition as
those that began with the rest condition.
EEG was recorded during the meditation and relaxation
periods via 20 scalp electrode sites (Fp1, Fp2, F7, F3, Fz, F4,
F8, T7, C3, Cz, C4, T8, P7, P3, Pz, P4, P8, O1, Oz, O2) ac-
cording to the international 10–20 electrode system using a
Linked mastoids served as reference. Horizontal eye move-
ment potentials were recorded using two electrodes placed
1 cm lateral to the outer canthi of the each eye. Vertical eye
movement potentials were recorded using two electrodes
placed on the center of the supraorbital and infraorbital re-
gions of the left eye. All electrode impedances were main-
tained at less than 5 kO. All potentials were amplified 200
times and acquired on a Neuroscan DC (Compumedics)
system at a sampling rate of 500 Hz. Ten (10) minutes of
eyes- closed EEG was recorded during each condition.
Prior to formal analysis, the data set was screened for
normality and outliers. The mean regional data (frontal,
temporal–central, posterior) for all four frequency bands
(delta, theta, alpha, and beta) was normally distributed for
rest and meditation conditions. Upon examination, these
data were skewed due to a single outlier (participant number
1), hence the data for the relevant electrode sites (C3, Cz, Pz,
P4, P8, P7, P3) were replaced with the respective mean score
in order to transform the data and control for the outlier.
Within-group analysis (meditation=rest) was undertaken
using multivariate regional analyses where the 20 electrode
sites were broken down into frontal (Fp1, F7, F3, Fz, F4, F8,
Fp2), temporal–central (T7, C3, Cz, C4, T8), and posterior
(P7, P3, Pz, P4, P8, O1, Oz, O2) regions. Additionally, the
EEG power was grouped into the following frequency
bands: delta (0.5–3 Hz), theta (3.1–7.9 Hz), alpha (8–12 Hz),
and beta (12.1–24 Hz). With the use of SPSS (version 12)
(SPSS Inc., Chicago, IL), each frequency band was submitted
to a within-subjects design analysis of variance (ANOVA)
over the factors of condition (meditation=rest) and region
(frontal=temporal–central=posterior). Within-subjects multi-
variate analyses of variance were conducted for each region
in order to compare regional differences according to ex-
Main effects and interactions
Repeated-measures ANOVAs revealed significant main
effects for experimental condition (F
¼ 4.99, p ¼ 0.04) and
¼ 5.48, p ¼ 0.01) for theta power. Hence, there
was a significant increase in theta power in the meditation
condition compared to the rest condition, when averaged
across all three brain regions (Table 1 and Fig. 1). Further-
more, there was a significant difference in theta power across
the three brain regions when averaged across the experi-
mental condition, with significantly greater theta power in
the frontal (F
¼ 5.83, p ¼ 0.03) and temporal–central
LAGOPOULOS ET AL.
¼ 13.86, p ¼ 0.003) regions when compared to the
posterior region (Table 2 and Fig. 2). There were no signifi-
cant interaction effects (F
¼ 1.27, p ¼ 0.30).
Repeated-measures ANOVAs revealed a significant main
effect for experimental condition (F
¼ 7.19, p ¼ 0.02) and
a significant trend for region (F
¼ 3.67, p ¼ 0.06, Pillai’s
Trace) for alpha power. Hence, there was a significant in-
crease in alpha power in the meditation condition compared
to the rest condition, when averaged across all three brain
regions (Fig. 1). Furthermore, there was a significant differ-
ence in alpha power across the three brain regions when
averaged across the experimental condition, with signifi-
cantly greater alpha power in the posterior (F
p ¼ 0.04) region when compared to the frontal region. There
were no significant interaction effects (F
¼ 2.14, p ¼ 0.16,
Pillai’s Trace) (Fig. 2).
There were no significant main effects for experimental
condition or interaction effects for delta (F
p ¼ 0.34; F
¼ 2.67, p ¼ 0.09). However, there were signif-
icant main effects for brain region for delta (F
p ¼ 0.00; Pillai’s Trace), reflecting a significant difference in
delta power across the three brain regions when averaged
across the two conditions (Fig. 2). Post-hoc analyses revealed
significantly lower delta power in the posterior regions
compared to both the frontal (F
¼ 20.92, p ¼ 0.001) and
¼ 33.16, p ¼ 0.00) regions.
There were no significant main or interaction effects for
beta power (F
¼ 0.57, p ¼ 0.46; F
¼ 2.8, p ¼ 0.10, Pil-
lai’s Trace; F
¼ 0.46, p ¼ 0.64).
Within-subjects ANOVAs were conducted to determine
whether there were differences in the frequency bands across
the two experimental conditions in each specific region, ra-
ther than averaged across all three regions. Given that we are
interested in group effects rather than specific differences
between electrode sites within the regions, only main effects
for condition (meditation versus rest) are reported.
There was a significant increase in alpha power in the
¼ 5.19, p ¼ 0.04), frontal (F
¼ 6.86, p ¼
0.02), and temporal–central (F
¼ 6.73, p ¼ 0.02) regions
and an increase in theta power in the posterior (F
p ¼ 0.03), frontal (F
¼ 3.64, p ¼ 0.08; trend only), and
¼ 5.36, p ¼ 0.04) regions during the
meditation condition compared to at rest. There was also a
significant increase in delta power in the temporal–central
region in the meditation condition compared to rest (F
4.75, p ¼ 0.05) (Figs. 3–5 and Table 3). There were no other
significant differences between the meditation and control
The novelty of the present study is that nondirective
meditation increases theta and alpha waves significantly
more than regular sitting relaxation. Theta activity was
Graphical representation of the effect of condition
on the spectral power across the four electroencephalogram
(EEG) bands. The EEG power from all three brain regions
1. Mean Power Values (Standard Deviation
in Parentheses) Averaged Across All Three Brain
Regions for the Meditation and Rest Conditions
) Theta (mV
) Alpha (mV
) Beta (mV
Meditation 2.96 (0.77)
5.59 (2.07) 13.14 (6.14) 0.98 (0.26)
9.93 (4.34) 0.96 (0.27)
Graphical representation of the effect of region on
the spectral power across the four electroencephalogram
(EEG) bands. The EEG power from both meditation and rest
conditions was averaged.
2. Mean Power Values (Standard Deviation
in Parentheses) Averaged Across Both Conditions
and the Three Brain Regions
3.44 (0.46) 5.60 (1.68)
8.93 (2.48) 0.79 (0.14)
2.96 (0.81) 5.51 (2.36) 11.03 (4.56) 0.96 (0.23)
2.35 (0.68) 4.30 (1.50) 14.14 (6.44) 1.13 (0.29)
EEG AND ACEM MEDITATION
greater in frontal and temporal–central areas, whereas alpha
was more abundant posteriorly. These results concur with
previous studies of other meditation types, reporting similar
EEG patterns for either theta or alpha.
In general, several aspects of EEG recordings are associ-
ated with specific changes in brain function during medita-
tion and other mental activities. It is a well-established
technique, which measures cortical activity directly from the
scalp of subjects. These electrical signals are described in
terms of frequency bands, with the more reliable patterns
being delta (0.5–4 Hz), theta (4–8 Hz), alpha (8–12 Hz), beta
(12–30 Hz), and gamma (30–70 Hz). Delta activity is associ-
ated with pathological conditions such as tumors,
occurs during sleep. In the context of meditation research,
the presence of delta can indicate that the subject is asleep.
Theta activity on the other hand is associated with alertness,
attention, and the efficient processing of cognitive and per-
Theta activity has also been associated with
orienting, working memory, and affective processing,
frontal theta activity indicative of concentration. Hence, in-
creases in theta activity may reflect increased cognitive
processing and awareness. In contrast, alpha activity char-
acterized by large rhythmic waves is associated with relax-
ation and the lack of active cognitive processes. When an
individual is asked to engage in a cognitive task, alpha ac-
tivity will cease. This is termed alpha desynchronization,
and higher-band alpha wave desynchronization is indicative
of increased cognitive processing and external attention,
whereas synchronization reflects internal attention.
Initial stages of meditation research focused predomi-
nantly on alpha band effects. However, several investigators
have proposed that increased theta rather than alpha activity
is a specific state effect of meditative practice, and that in-
creased theta correlates positively with the level of medita-
Several studies have shown that long-term
meditators exhibit higher theta and alpha power.
compared 20 monks (10 with extensive experience, 10
with moderate experience) to 10 controls prior to and during
Zen meditation. They found that alpha appeared in all the
groups, whereas theta activity only appeared in the experi-
enced group, affecting the frontal region, proportionally to
the level of experience, hence supporting the previous find-
ings of Kasamatsu and Hirai.
Increased theta activity was
also observed in the frontal and posterior temporal region. In
a single case-study, repeated-measure design involving three
meditation scans and one control condition over 4 days,
Faber et al.
demonstrated increased theta coherence and
Graphical representation of the effect of condition
(meditation versus rest) averaged across the temporal–
central electrode (T7, C3, Cz, C4, T8) sites. EEG, electroen-
Graphical representation of the effect of condition
(meditation versus rest) averaged across the posterior elec-
trode (P7, P3, Pz, P4, P8, O1, Oz, O2) sites. EEG, electroen-
Graphical representation of the effect of condition
(meditation versus rest) averaged across the frontal electrode
(Fp1, F7, F3, Fz, F4, F8, Fp2) sites. EEG, electroencephalo-
LAGOPOULOS ET AL.
decreased gamma coherence, except over temporal regions
where gamma coherence increased.
Kubota et al.
suggested that frontal theta reflects the
involvement of attention and working memory systems in
the prefrontal neural circuitry, including the anterior cingu-
late cortex, and that activity within these systems is inte-
grated with peripheral autonomic functioning. To test this
hypothesis, a study involving instruction of 25 novice par-
ticipants in the su-soku Zen technique was conducted. A
significant difference was found in frontal midline theta
rhythm during meditation, compared with the resting con-
trol condition. Both sympathetic and parasympathetic indi-
ces increased during frontal theta activity, suggesting a close
relationship between cardiac autonomic functioning and
activity of the medial frontal neural circuitry.
A study by Takahashi et al.
in 20 novice meditators also
found increased theta and alpha activity in frontal areas and
decreased sympathetic and increased parasympathetic ac-
tivity during meditation. The authors pointed out that alpha
and theta waves are independently involved in mental pro-
cessing during meditation. They also suggested that success-
ful meditation involves slower frontal alpha synchronization
coupled with reduced sympathetic activity, and that mind-
fulness may activate theta activity in the frontal areas as well
as increased parasympathetic activity.
Previous studies of the nondirective technique acem med-
itation documented a long-term reduction in blood pressure
and mental symptoms in everyday life outside meditation.
During practice, heart rate reduction compared to regular
relaxation indicated lower sympathetic and=or higher para-
sympathetic nerve activity.
The present study demonstrated
significant increases in theta- and alpha-wave activity in
frontal and temporal–central areas, and in posterior regions,
respectively. Higher theta activity probably reflects increased
awareness and attention, as well as cognitive and affective
processing during meditation,
whereas the increase in al-
pha activity likely relates to relaxation.
meditation produced little change in delta (sleep or patholog-
ical processes) or beta activity (concentration and demanding
tasks). Theta power, greater in frontal and temporal–central
regions than in posterior regions, may be meditation specific
and suggests neural processing in the frontal midline (ante-
rior cingulate cortex), and limbic areas, all of which have
been previously implicated in meditation. These areas are
known to a have a prominent role in emotion processing. In
contrast, alpha waves were more abundant in posterior re-
gions, which is compatible with reduced cognitive proces-
sing in sensory-related areas.
The experimental design of this study was such that all the
subjects acted as their own controls. This type of design af-
fords several advantages (including exact age and gender
matching for both conditions); however, it is associated with
several limitations. First, the potential interactive effects of a
combination of both practice and experience cannot be dis-
counted, as all the subjects were experienced meditators.
Second, although the meditation and rest conditions were
randomly assigned across all of the subjects, a lack of blind-
ing in this study may have contributed to a potential bias for
the meditation condition. Future studies need to elucidate
whether such an effect exists.
These novel EEG findings related to acem meditation
suggest that nondirective meditation techniques alter theta
and alpha EEG patterns significantly more than regular re-
laxation, in a manner that is perhaps similar to methods based
on mindfulness or concentration. Future studies should try
to delineate the functional meaning of the alpha and theta
activity in meditation (e.g., follow meditation novices who
comply with the technique over an extended period and look
for potential gradual alterations in brain activity that corre-
spond to the amount of meditation undertaken).
We acknowledge National Health and Medical Research
Council Program Grant 510135 and Belinda Ivanovski for
assistance with statistics.
Svend Davanger, Øyvind Ellingsen, and Are Holen are
affiliated with Acem School of Meditation, an international
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Address correspondence to:
Jim Lagopoulos, Ph.D., F.A.I.N.M.
Department of Psychological Medicine
Level 5 Building 36
Royal North Shore Hospital
St. Leonards, Sydney, New South Wales 2065
LAGOPOULOS ET AL.
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