Pioneering Study Quantifies Brain Wave Patterns During Higher Human Functioning

Researchers Now Able to Study ‘Enlightenment’ with New Integration Scale

“This experimental work utilizes standard neurophysiological techniques to probe deeper levels of consciousness than are usually studied in the field of neuroscience. The resulting Integration Scale based on electrical brain activity could open up a new program of research into experiences that have typically been elusive to scientific investigation.” — Joe Tecce, Ph.D., Boston College

For more than a century scientists have grappled with the concept of higher states of consciousness, generally dismissing them as something mystical or philosophical that had to be taken on faith, since there was no scientific standard to evaluate them. Now a research team may be closer to understanding these elusive states of awareness via a new Integration Scale. This scale quantifies EEG brain waves of subjects who reportedly experience “transcendence”—a silent unbounded continuum of awareness—along with the changing values of daily life.

The study is published in this month’s issue of Biological Psychology (November 2002, Vol. 61, No. 3, pp. 293–319). “This is the first time, to my knowledge, that people who have integrated the experience of transcendence into their daily lives have had their brain wave patterns studied as they engage in mental tasks,” says the study’s lead author, Frederick Travis, Ph.D., a researcher at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa.

Dr. Travis said every great religious and philosophical tradition has posed the possibility of higher human functioning. In the 19th century, Harvard’s esteemed William James observed that most people use only 5–10% of their mental potential, thus positing more elevated states. In 1901, Canadian psychologist Richard M. Bucke wrote a landmark book on full human potential entitled Cosmic Consciousness. Later, Abraham Maslow reported that individuals who were “self-actualized” commonly had “peak” or “transcendental” experiences.

Research Now Possible Due to Availability of Subjects Experiencing Transcendence

“Until now a major obstacle has been the challenge of finding individuals who report a fairly stabilized experience of the state of transcendence during activity,” Dr. Travis said. “Fortunately, a growing number of individuals practicing the Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique report this experience.”

From this pool of potential subjects Dr. Travis was able to identify 17 persons practicing the TM technique who had been having regular experiences of transcendence along with activity for at least a year.

“I wanted to study people who reported having these experiences and see if their EEG patterns were different from a control population,” Dr. Travis said. “We wanted to be able to authenticate these advanced states of consciousness scientifically.”

Details of the Study

Collaborating with Dr. Travis on the research were Joe Tecce, professor of psychology at Boston College, Alarik Arenander, director of the Brain Research Institute at Maharishi University of Management, and R. Keith Wallace, professor of physiology at Maharishi University of Management.

Researchers recorded brain wave activity (EEG) in the TM subjects and in two comparison groups while all three performed a series of simple tasks (hearing a stimulus tone and then pressing a computer key) as well as a series of decision-based tasks (hearing a tone and then deciding which of two numbers on the screen was larger). Scientists refer to these as simple and choice-contingent negative variation (CNV) tasks. CNV reflects the timing and level of engagement of the brain as it prepares to respond.

Typically, when subjects prepare to respond, the brain becomes “primed” so that it can react more quickly. This is reflected as a higher EEG baseline. The study showed that subjects reporting transcendence along with waking and sleeping responded more efficiently during tasks. Their CNV was higher in simple tasks, when they knew the correct response and so should be getting ready to respond, but it was lower in choice trials, when they did not yet know what would be the correct response and so should not be getting ready to respond.

The pattern of brain waves over the entire duration of the tasks was also compared in the study. “Earlier studies found that distinct EEG amplitude and coherence patterns are associated with transcendence during meditation, and now this study shows that the TM group has integrated these patterns into daily life,” Dr. Travis said. “These significant EEG differences support the experience in these individuals of inner transcendence along with dynamic activity.”

The Development of an Integration Scale

The researchers have used these cortical measures—EEG and CNV—to develop an “Integration Scale,” a set of criteria that characterize the transformation in brain dynamics corresponding to increasing integration of transcendent experiences with daily activity. Just as scientists earlier quantified the physiological states associated with the common states of awareness—waking, sleeping, and dreaming—they hope now to quantify the experience of transcendence in daily activity, sometimes referred to as enlightenment, self-actualization, or cosmic consciousness.

Brain Has Innate Capacity for Higher Function

“The human brain appears to have an innate capacity to function at much higher levels, where mental processes become very calm, precise, and efficient—without common anxieties, frustrations or unhappiness,” Dr. Travis said. “These results are important because they validate via Western science the experiences of higher consciousness—deep inner peace, bliss, unbounded awareness, and oneness with the universe—which have been esteemed throughout the ages.”

“Modern science, for the first time, has documented the existence of what ancient traditions have spoken of over the millennia as the state of enlightenment, a state of total brain functioning,” said study coauthor Dr. Arenander. “This research describes a brain-based measure that can be a useful tool to help science define total human potential and find ways to develop it.”

Dr. Travis is dean of the graduate college and director of the EEG lab at Maharishi University of Management, where students practice the Transcendental Meditation technique to develop their full creative potential and create world peace.

Maharishi University of Management

Public Affairs · Fairfield, Iowa 52557 · Ph. 641-470-1314 · ·

For Immediate Release: Contact: Ken Chawkin
November 18, 2002 Ph. (641) 470-1314